Book Review: My Stroke of Insight

My Stroke of Insight

Note: This is book #38 in my 52 Books in 52 Weeks challenge for 2008.

In My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey, author Jill Bolte Taylor takes us through her autobiographical account of what it was like for her to have a stroke. And not just a little one. This was a really massive blowout that did severe damage and left her in an almost child like state. With the left side of her brain swimming in blood (fun fact: raw blood is toxic to our precious, irreplaceable neurons), Taylor not only required invasive brain surgery, but also assistance from others to relearn almost everything about how to be a human being. Perhaps aptly, her greatest source of aid and care giving is her mother, who gets to repeat Taylor’s childhood, complete with helping her to learn through play, teaching her to read, providing her sensory stimulation for (re)development, and instructing her on the basic life skills that one usually associates with babies and toddlers. A good chunk of the book retells the morning of Taylor’s stroke (with great clarity and detail), her rush to the hospital, the rapid unraveling of her mind, and her long return trip to normalcy and health. Spoiler alert: she made it.

And of course beyond this the book’s hook is that the author just happens to be a brain scientist, someone who has made her career studying the human brain at a little place back East called Harvard. So the appeal to me was the streak of science worked through the fabric of her story, including discussions on how the brain works, how strokes work, and how the brain STOPS working so well when the two get together. In an effort to keep the book more mainstream Taylor holds the science parts at a pretty high level, limiting things to right brain and left brain. I’m pretty sure that brain researchers could point to diagrams of gray matter with labels that rhyme with things like ooblongdoggle hypothancum and tell you that it controls our ability to figure out what 10% off a $.89 can of pinto beans would be, but Taylor shoves everything into either the right brain or left brain buckets.

Indeed the best parts of the book are where Taylor is melding this kind of brain science with her personal accounts, like when she describes how her wounded brain had to relearn the concept of edges in objects and figure out that stepping on the cracks between concrete sidewalk slabs was okay, but stepping on the edges to the right of the sidewalk was tricky, because that was a curb she could stumble off of. The early parts of the book are full of little tidbits like this, and it’s a good melding of science and personal story. I just wish there were more of it.

Unfortunately, Taylor periodically traipses off into dippy hippy la-la land with prolonged discussions about how to control her positive energy, how to meditate on her mood, and how to be a really super all around pleasant person just by thinking about how the right side chunk of her brain works in the wake of the stroke. There’s little science in these parts to appease the left part of your brain, and things really did get far out, man. It was about the time that she was talking about how our right brains control our ability to send “waves of healing energy” to those around us that I lost most of my interest in the remainder of the book. If you feel the same way, feel free to stop reading about there.

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Week 239: Language, Lies, and Sand

Well, we’ve hit another important milestone. Mandy’s verbal skills have developed to the point where she and her sister can have “She-said-she-said” type moments. The other night I was cleaning up in the kitchen while Sam and Mandy played in the living room. There was a pause in the sounds of their play and then Mandy started crying. A few seconds later Mandy walks into the kitchen, arms upraised and still crying.

“What happened?” I asked as I picked her up.

“Sister pushed me again,” Mandy said. At least that’s what it sounded like to me. To less highly trained ears it was probably closer to “Dee-der puh me agin.”

“Sammy!” I called to the other room. “Did you push Mandy?”

“No!” Sam called back. “She fell on the hardwood floor. That’s the truth. That’s all there is!”

“Mandy, is that what happened?”


You hear a lot about the miracle of language development in children, its infinite capacity for truth, beauty, inquiry, and connection between kindred souls. But you don’t hear a lot about the kind of exchanges I described above. It’s like how a lot of people predicted something like television long before it appeared, but none of them foresaw commercials for hemorrhoid creams. Still, all considered, the girls get along really well.

And now I would like to share with you a parenting pro-tip related to an easy little project. Go to a hardware store and buy the following:

  1. One of those long, shallow plastic bins commonly used for under-the-bed storage. Get one with a snap-on lid.
  2. A few bags of sand.

Put #2 in #1, ideally out on your porch or patio. Grab various plastic cups and beach toys and toss them in. Call the kids over and announce that they now have their own private sandbox. Revel in your new status as THE BEST MOM/DAD IN THE WORLD. Snap on the lid at night to keep bugs and moisture out.

Seriously, I did this the other weekend. It cost me about $15 and Sam absolutely flipped out with joy over it. She kept chattering away about how much she LOVED her new sandbox and kept thanking me for it over and over again. Best part is that we put it on our back patio, which is enclosed by a fence so we can leave her and Mandy out there to play while we do stuff inside.

Mandy also loves it, though she insists on sitting inside the box. She also insists on cramming sand in every part of her body she can think of, including mouth, ears, nose, and …other places. The first time I changed her diaper after setting this all up I must have recovered about a pound of sand, which could NOT have been comfortable and may have explained her highly irritated mood.

Book Review: The Ruins

The Ruins

Note: This is #37 in my 52 Books in 52 Weeks challenge for 2008.

I originally picked this book up based on a recommendation from another blog I read, but I’m kind of sorry I did. Belonging squarely in the “Horror” section of the bookstore, Scott Smith’s The Ruins tells the story of a quartet of American college students who hook up with a couple of new friends while on vacation in Cancun, Mexico. The group decides to go looking for one member’s brother, who left some time before to explore some ruins out in the jungle and hasn’t been heard from yet.

Okay, I’m going to step into some slight spoiler territory now, but it’s nothing you don’t learn early in the book and it’s necessary to really explain my opinion on Smith’s creation here. When the group, almost comically unprepared for a jungle journey, fumbles their way to the ruins, they find it overgrown by a strange vine with blood red flowers. A group of Mayan villagers tries to get them to leave, but when one of the tourists inadvertently makes contact with the sprawling vines, the Mayans change their tune and force the whole group, under threat of murder, to wade through the vines and into the dig site. From there the Mayans hold them prisoner and the group is systematically terrorized, tortured, and in some cases devoured by …the vines.

Now, it’s true that The Ruins is readable. Apart from a few “Look at me, I’m just like Stephen King!” attempts at character building through flashbacks that bog the narrative down, the pacing is quick and it’s hardly a challenging book. And I was pretty much constantly wanting to know what would happen next. The problem was that the concept of these teens being tormented by malicious plants possessed of a sinister intelligence is so risible that I had trouble feeling much in the way of suspense or fear. The vines don’t just consume with any kind of animal instinct, they’re intelligent, cunning, and purposefully mean. They can do things like mimic the sounds of hurtful conversations just for the sake of sewing discontent among their victims and recreate the smell of baking bread just to taunt their victims’ hunger. The author’s hand is way too visible in determining what the vines can do just so the hapless victims can be tormented. It was just silly, and worse yet there is never any payoff. You never learn why the vines are capable of what they are, why they do what they do, or why the Mayans won’t let people out of their deadly thicket once they’re there. Other than, of course, the author needed them to.

The other big problem I had with The Ruins was that it never elevated beyond a simple slasher pic or gore porn mentality. Sure, Smith made some interesting attempts at showing the dissolution of the various characters’ relationships when exposed to life threatening duress, and it feels like he almost gets somewhere with this. But ultimately the predicament is so contrived and so bizarre that any kind of characterization in this area seems ham fisted. And Smith doesn’t seem to tackle any larger themes through the examination of the tourists’ predicament. There’s not much about good versus evil, man versus nature, the duality of faith, the perils of self destruction, etc. etc. There are kernels of some of these ideas, but none of them bear fruit on the vine. So to speak. It’s just violence for the sake of violence, and that never interests me.

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Week 238: Parties, Police, and Remotes

Had a pretty fun weekend this week. Sam has resumed her swim lessons, but the thing she was really looking forward to was a block party that our neighborhood put on. it started with a bike parade, which Sam participated in by slowly accelerating on her bike, then slamming on the brakes if she got going over half a mile an hour. If I was walking behind her at the time this resulted in my getting a groin full of bicycle seat or tire, and this happened a lot. more often than it really should have, which is to say that it happened more than once. Once we made it to the party, though, Sam had a blast. In fact, she had a little too much fun, to the point where she the police showed up, finger printed her, and took her for a little ride.

After she posted bail, though, she made it back in time to participate in the scavenger hunt. This event had all the kids splitting up into teams that raced around asking various attendees for items from a list –a blue rock, a Lego block, a 2008 coin, etc. Sam mostly ran around her pack of older kids, trailing behind like some kind of vestigial tail, but the event allowed her to run around and demand things of people, so she seemed to like it well enough.

Mandy also had fun, though she wasn’t able to socialize quite as well. It’s only a matter of time, though, since I’m convinced she understands pretty much everything we say. The other morning we had finished breakfast and retired to the living room, where Sam usually watches her daily hour of television.

“I want to watch a show,” she said. “I want to watch Clifford.”

I was sitting in a chair reading, so I told her “Okay, go find the remote and bring it to me.”

Now, despite our best efforts to teach her to the contrary, Sam seems convinced that if she ever doesn’t want to do something –clean up, find her blanket, climb the stairs– she can just press her head to the floor and mumble “Nooooo, I caaaaaan’t. I don’t know where it iiiiiis. Yoooooou dooooo it!” She did this now, at which point I returned to my reading and told her that she could watch whatever show she wanted when she brought me the remote.

As soon as I had finished my proclamation, Mandy, who was standing nearby watching the whole exchange, shouted “Remote!” then proceeded to walk across the room to the counter, select the correct remote control from an array of four different remotes (TiVo, TV, DVD player, and stereo), and bring it over to me. She grinned at me in triumph while Sam looked more than a little put out.

“Hooray!” I said, “Mandy got the remote! So I think Mandy should choose what show to watch.”

“Thomas!” Mandy shouted.

“Noooo!” Sam cried. “Not Thomas! Mandy, say ‘Clifford’.”

“Samantha,” I began.

“Clifford!” Mandy shouted.

I sighed. “Mandy, do you want to watch Thomas? Let’s watch Thomas.”

“Clifford!” Mandy repeated, glancing at Sammy.

“Dad,” Sam drawled, “she wants to watch Clifford. Come on!”

Grumbling, I started an episode of Clifford the Absurdly Large Red Dog. Mandy watched about 12 seconds of it, then wandered off to happily play by herself while her big sister sat glued to the rest of the show. I wondered who was getting the best of whom. Maybe that’s how Mandy wanted to play it all along.

Book Review: Wikinomics


Note: This is #36 in my 52 Books in 52 Weeks challenge for 2008.

The full title of this book by Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams is Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything, and it sets out to describe how the Internet and other information technology are creating new business models that capitalize on collaboration, sharing, the wisdom of crowds (so to speak) and distributed work. It’s a fascinating topic that anyone who has ventured onto the Internet can see is huge, yet the authors of this particular work seem so caught up in their own breathless hyperbole and big ideas that I had to check a calendar to make sure it wasn’t the year 2000 again. As critical as their wikinomics is to commerce and culture, they still manage to oversell it.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of interest in Wikinomics. The book is at its best when it’s telling you stories about companies that exemplify the collaborative models the authors introduce. For example, there’s Goldcorp, a gold mining company that dumped the entirety of its geological database onto the Internet and said “Okay, there you go. Cash monies for whoever can tell us the best place to dig for gold.” And it worked. Really worked. There were also several chapters of interest on computer culture legends like Linux, Wikipedia, Flickr, YouTube, Second Life, and The authors tell you how these endeavors came to be and how they they used the wikinomics principles to succeeded where their competitors (when they had them) failed. They even throw in a few examples from places you might not expect them, such as in more aged companies like Proctor and Gamble or the aforementioned Goldcorp.

And all this wikinomics stuff makes sense. I’ve seen first-hand what can come of providing your fans with the ability to create content, collaborate, and share specialized knowledge. When I worked at GameSpy, a startup company built on videogame fandom, the company built itself on the backs of people running fan sites and organizing online (and real life) communities around their favorite videogames. And the book makes good cases for how even companies whose products are NOT 1s and 0s can benefit from principles like outsourcing difficult research problems, using and developing open source software, or drawing on Creative Commons licenses.

The problem, however, is that the authors of Wikinomics are too busy chugging their own Kool-Aid to take a step back and get some perspective. They literally say things like how these principles –not the Internet or the computer, but just these principles of collaboration through them– is as big a deal as the printing press or the Enlightenment-with-a-capital-E. No, really, I’m not putting words in their mouths, they really say this. Throughout all the discussions, the implication and sometimes even the flatly stated proclamation is that companies who aren’t doing these things are going to die –quickly and spectacularly. Keep in mind that we’re not talking about whether companies use e-mail or have a web site. The authors are saying that there is no business that won’t rely on these specific collaborative techniques to prosper. Tell me if that doesn’t seem like a bit of an overstatement.

Relatedly, it kind of irked me that the authors gave so little –some, but ultimately little– consideration to the dark side of all this. They seemed to underplay the effect of everything from annoying trolls to saboteurs to corporate espionage, all of which are made possible or exacerbated by the kinds of business practices they discuss. This isn’t a huge point, but it’s something that I don’t feel like they honestly or completely addressed.

Still, Wikinomics is worth a read for the parts that give examples and mini-bios on many of the Internet companies that you probably not only have heard of, but use. You’ll just need a pinch or two of salt for the rest.

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Week 237: Bears, Colors, and Robots

We still read to Sam (and Mandy) as a bedtime ritual, but occasionally Sam will want to forgo the books and ask me to tell her a story that I make up off the top of my head. The experience is much akin to going in for a big job interview and having the stern faced person across the table ask you to tell them about a time when you “leveraged your competencies to move the needle on key organizational metrics” and you just kind of stand there, stunned and slack jawed while they continue to stare at you.

But blessed as I am with the gift of making up a continuous stream of absurd nonsense at the drop of a hat (c.f., this blog) I can usually recover and make stuff up. Sam often even provides helpful “notes,” such that the story must feature a cat. Lately Sam has taken a turn at storytelling herself, though hers are of a substantially different tone.

Here, allow me to demonstrate. Here’s a story I came up with the other night:

Once there was a polar bear named, uh, Bernard. He lived at the South Pole and all in all he thought it was pretty okay. He had lots of white snow to play in, he had lots of sky to gaze up at (white in the day, black at night), and he add all the black and white penguins he could eat. And he had white ice sheets to walk on, and he had dark, practically black water to swim in. But sometimes Bernard felt like something was missing, only he didn’t know what.

One day Bernard saw something that stopped him in his tracks: a spot of RED against the white snow. He was amazed, because he had never seen RED before, and it made him feel all excited and happy. Turns out it was a bright red coat being worn by one of a team of scientists who had come to the South Pole to study, um …what kinds of chili peppers penguins prefer to be rubbed on the bottom of their feet. Bernard watched the RED jacket and he saw other colors too! The scientists’ tent was ORANGE and another one had BLUE snow pants. Bernard was totally amazed by these colors. He had never seen anything like them and they made him so happy.

When the scientists finished their research (turns out penguins prefer cayenne peppers) they packed up and got into their helicopter. Bernard ran after the helicopter, and then he ran after their car to the port, and then he swam after their boat, all the way to San Diego. Once there Bernard kept following the scientist in the RED jacket, all the way to the deserts of New Mexico where the scientist had gone to visit his family.

And let me tell you, Bernard LOVED the deserts of New Mexico. He saw BLUE sky, ORANGE earth, RED rocks, GREEN cacti, the YELLOW sun, and every other kind of color you can think of. He would just sit up on a rock for hours and hours looking at all the colors, with only the occasional hiker as a snack. He lived there the rest of his life and eventually he became a celebrated landscape painter. The end.

(Finding a way to end the stories is always the hardest part for me.) Sam loved the story, and thought she’d try her hand. Here’s what she came up with:

Once there was a cat. And a robot. And the robot was mean so he chased the cat and took out a gun and shot at the cat but the cat ran and he ran and the robot chased him into a castle. The cat locked the door but the robot shot the door with his gun and ran through the door so the cat ran and found a little boy who’s name was …Sammy. The robot chased the cat and the Sammy boy and they ran into a castle and they went into the basement and it was dark but the robot came down the stairs and then the cat flipped the robot’s switch and he became a nice robot so they were all friends.

All the psychoanalysts in the house will no doubt read much into both of the stories presented above, but whatever. I was delighted by Sam’s story myself, and it goes hand in hand with her robot fascination of late. I think it started when I let her watch an anime movie called Castle in the Sky, which featured a giant war robot that kind of freaked her out. Or maybe it was watching The Iron Giant before that. I should probably cut it out with the giant scary robots.

Oh, Mandy? Yes, Mandy. Not much to tell there. She’s getting more and more verbal, though she’s also been running a fever the last few days so she’s not too chatty. I’ll tell her you asked.

Book Review: Water for Elephants

Water for Elephants

Note: This is #35 of my 52 Books in 52 Weeks challenge for 2008.

Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants is one of those books I’m kind of split on. Set in America during the Great Depression, the book tells the story of Jacob Jankowski, a young man who drops out of veterinary school just shy of graduation in the face of personal tragedy. Adrift and dazed, he joins a second-rate circus, almost by accident. After slumming around with the “working men,” Jankowski is hired on as the show’s vet when his training comes to light. From this new position he quickly falls into a love triangle between one of the show’s performers and her alternately charming and vicious husband.

The bulk of the novel deals with this romance and the tension that arises as Jankowski both falls in love with the performer and befriends her husband. What I really enjoyed wasn’t necessarily this story, though. Gruen seems to have done a lot of homework about traveling circuses during the Depression-with-a-capital-D, and what I liked most was this look at how things probably really were. Jankowski’s is not a romanticized tale of running off to join the circus; it’s a dirty, crass, slovenly, desperate, cruel, gritty, and sometimes dangerous world that Gruen does a pretty good job of pulling us into with her own blend of storytelling, narration, and explanation of certain ugly customs and harsh business practices. It’s a whole new world of its own, and it was fun to get drawn into it.

It also helps that Jankowski and, to a lesser degree, his romantic rival are are interesting and strong enough characters to hold your attention. The former obviously has a stubborn streak as wide as an elephant, yet he also has noble intentions and is genuinely tortured by his infatuation with a married woman. He’s flawed but noble, plus he has an elephant.

That all being said, there was one aspect of the book that really didn’t work for me. Gruen punctuates the above tale of Jankowski’s circus adventure with scenes of him in the present day at age 90 or so. Jankowski is locked up in a nursing home where he has to endure things like surly nurses, young (as in 85 or so) upstarts, and his general lack of freedom.

Basically, it’s every bad cliche you can think of about nursing homes and the elderly, and it’s almost embarrassingly trite. Gruen surrounds the book’s real and vastly more enjoyable story in this nursing home tale like an ugly wrapper, and I got to the point where I groaned every time such an interlude intruded upon my entertainment. After the first few, I just started skimming the bits with the elderly Jankowski to get back to the good parts. I get what Gruen was trying to do here, but her execution seemed so trite and so cliched that I think the book would have been better without the nursing home chapters at all, else she should have reduced them to abbreviated bookends for the central tale.

Still, it’s good enough if you can just ignore what doesn’t work and focus on what does.

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Week 236: Raisins, Discipline, and Consequences

I’ve heard that second children tend to get away with a lot more, simply by virtue of having older siblings that are still alive and so the parents think that maybe they were a bit too overprotective and so let’s let baby play with a butane lighter. Case in point: I had given Mandy a box of raisins as a snack the other day and when I glanced over to her I noticed that she was eating some that had fallen on the floor. Not a big deal, though it’s something I’ve mildly chastised her about before. But wait, what’s a little worse than eating raisins that had fallen on the floor is that Mandy was down on all fours eating the dropped dried fruit without picking it up, pressing her mouth and lips to the floor to get them up. Okay, that’s not great, that’s not ideal, that’s not the kind of thing that you’ll see recommended by anything in the Parenting section of the bookstore, but it’s still not freakout material. Except that said raisins had been dropped ON THE FLOOR IN THE BATHROOM IN FRONT OF THE TOILET. So yeah okay, that kind of thing not only crossed the line, but sprinted past it and over the horizon. She got a strong talking to and a new box of raisins.

At least this week we had backup for our parental policing, though, as my sister was in town for several days to visit and help out while Geralyn dealt with some other stuff. Samantha was delighted to see her Aunt Shawn, who came bearing more new books than the Library of Congress, including Partly Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, which I remembered loving as a kid. Sam was mostly good to her. Though she has no spawn of her own, Shawn used to work in and actually run a daycare, so what she lacks in depth of experience with this one particular child, she more than makes up for in breadth of experience with many different temperamental, difficult, and deviant rascals. And those are just the day care employees. She has also dealt with children.

Unfortunately, we apparently failed to make it sufficiently clear to Sam that by dint of overlapping DNA Shawn was in possession of full parental authority when Mommy and Daddy were out of the house. Sam had thought that this was just the nice lady that brought her books and gave her abundant attention, and once the normal parental units made the mistake of departing the premises, all bets were off. I believe doodles were drawn on the rug beneath the coffee table, and Sam was equal parts bewildered and outraged when her supposed houseguest called her on the carpet to clean up that very same carpet. She learned quickly, though, and we all got along fine after that except later that night when Sam threw a little plastic boat at my head just to make some subtle counter-point during my lecture about consequences for bad behavior. At any rate, we were all sad to see Shawn off at the airport, if for varying reasons.

Book Review: Good to Great

Good to Great

Note: This is book #34 in my 52 Books in 52 Weeks challenge for 2008.

This book by Jim Collins is one of the most successful books to be found in the “Business” section of your local megabookstore, and given how it purports to tell you how to take a merely good company and make it great, it’s not difficult to see why that might be so. Collins and his crack team of researchers say they swam through stacks of business literature in search of info on how to pull this feat off, and came up with a list of great companies that illustrate some concepts central to the puzzle. They also present for each great company what they call a “comparison company,” which is kind of that company with a goatee and a much less impressive earnings record. The balance of the book is spent expanding on pithy catch phrases that describe the great companies, like “First Who, Then What” or “Be a Hedgehog” or “Grasp the Flywheel, not the Doom Loop.” No, no, I’m totally serious.

I’ve got several problems with this book, the biggest of which stem from fundamentally viewpoints on how to do research. Collin’s brand of research is not my kind. It’s not systematic, it’s not replicable, it’s not generalizable, it’s not systematic, it’s not free of bias, it’s not model driven, and it’s not collaborative. It’s not, in short, scientific in any way. That’s not to say that other methods of inquiry are without merit –the Harvard Business Review makes pretty darn good use of case studies, for example– but way too often Collins’s great truths seemed like square pegs crammed into round holes, because a round hole is what he wants. For example, there’s no reported search for information that disconfirms his hypotheses. Are there other companies that don’t make use of a Culture of Discipline (Chapter 6, natch) but yet are still great according to Collins’s definition? Are there great companies that fail to do some of the things he says should make them great? The way that the book focuses strictly on pairs of great/comparison companies smacks of confirmatory information bias, which is a kink in the human mind that drives us to seek out and pay attention to information that confirms our pre-existing suppositions and ignore information that fails to support them.

Relatedly, a lot of the book’s themes and platitudes strike me as owing their popularity to the same factors that make the horoscope or certain personality tests like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator so popular: they’re so general and loosely defined that almost anyone can look at that and not only say that wow, that make sense, and I’ve always felt the same way! This guy and me? We’re geniuses! The chapter about “getting the right people on the bus” that extols the virtue of hiring really super people is perhaps the most obvious example. Really, did anyone read this part and think “Oh, man. I’ve been hiring half retarded chimps. THAT’S my problem! I should hire GOOD people!” Probably not, and given that Collins doesn’t go into any detail about HOW to do this or any of his other good to great pro tips, I’m not really sure where the value is supposed to be.

It also irked me that Good to Great seems to try and exist in a vacuum, failing to relate its findings to any other body of research except Collins’s other book, Built to Last. The most egregious example of this is early on in Chapter 2 where Collins talks about his concept of “Level 5 Leadership,” which characterizes those very special folks who perch atop a supposed leadership hierarchy. The author actually goes into some detail describing Level 5 leaders, but toward the end of the chapter he just shrugs his figurative shoulders and says “But we don’t know how people get to be better leaders. Some people just are.” Wait, what? People in fields like Industrial-Organizational Psychology and Organizational Development have been studying, scientifically, what great leaders do and how to do it for decades. We know TONS about how to become a better leader. There are entire industries built around it. You would think that somebody on the Good to Great research team may have done a cursory Google search on this.

So while Good to Great does have some interesting thoughts and a handful of amusing or even fascinating stories to tell about the companies it profiles (I liked, for example, learning about why Walgreens opens so many shops in the same area, even to the point of having stores across the street from each other in some cities), ultimately it strikes me as vague generalities and little to no practical information about how to actually DO anything to make your company great.

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