Best Books of 2017 – Chapter 2

I’ve always been interested in reading books about our US space program and to date I think I have read almost every book written by an astronaut or about the development of the program. Like other scientifically minded young boys who grew up in the 60s, I found each new NASA achievement fascinating and even built models of Gemini and Apollo rockets. So when I learned of Nathalia Holt’s book, Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us from Missiles to the Moon to Mars, I thought this was definitely one aspect of our space program I had not read about.

Ask any Millennial today to describe a computer and we all know they will quickly launch into a discussion about a PC. But long before our modern understanding of what a computer is, a computer was a person that computes. This book tells the story of the women who were hired and worked at the Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) in Pasadena, CA to perform complex mathematical calculations by hand using paper and pencil.  And since JPL got its start developing rockets on the grounds of Caltech, a campus I am well familiar with since my son-in-law did his post-doc there, I was taken in by the story as soon as I read the description of one of the rocket girls heels clicking on the red brick walkway as she hurried away from one of the accidents by the “Suicide Squad” that ultimately led to JPL being kicked off campus.

It is sad to note that it was partly because of a sexist attitude that ensured all of the computers at JPL were women for many of them came in with the same qualifications as the men who were hired as engineers. But in the 1940s, the men were engineers and the women were computers.

One of their original projects was to design rocket engines that could be attached to propeller airplanes during the war to enable heavy bombers to launch from the short deck of an aircraft carrier. Their hand calculations helped elucidate what fuels provided the most thrust. As the war ended, their math skills turned to calculating what it would take for a rocket to escape the earth’s atmosphere and launch a satellite into orbit. Sadly due to politics, JPL was barred from launching their developed satellite upon a four-stage rocket of their own design. We all know the Russians beat us in 1957 launching first Sputnik and then Sputnik II. Had JPL been allowed to launch when it was ready, the US would have beat the Russians by over a year.

As electronic computers became available, for some tasks, the Rocket Girls traded pencils for keypads and became the first computer programmers typing commands onto punch cards (ones I can remember using myself in college in the early 1970s). But the girl’s accuracy was no less important as a correct guidance program handwritten at JPL in Pasadena incurred a single transcription error when a male engineer in Florida transcribed the code onto punch cards omitting a single superscript bar which caused the rocket to be destroyed in flight shortly after being launched.

The main reason that I had not heard of the Rocket Girls is because JPL did not directly support the manned space missions. JPL only supported unmanned projects. But it was their exploration of our two closest neighbors, Venus and Mars with the Mariner missions in the 1960s that ended centuries old speculation that these planets were inhabited by living beings. And without the Ranger program sending probes to the moon, NASA would never have known the Sea of Tranquility was a safe place for man to land on the lunar surface.

JPL would go on to make further scientific history with the Voyager and Cassini missions sending probes to the outer reaches of our solar system. And as JPL progressed, it was satisfying to note that the Rocket Girls were eventually reclassified as engineers, a title they were duly worthy of and decades later, still staffed solely at JPL with women.

Once again, I have BookBub to thank for bringing to my attention this book as one of their daily specials. I have always been fascinated about the Titanic story and when Robert Ballard discovered the sunken ship (an event even featured in this novel), and published his incredible photos of the sunken ship, it simply whetted my appetite even more. What first caught my eye for this book was not so much the title but the famous four-funnel ship image on the book cover. In fact, the title, The Girl Who Came Home: A Novel of the Titanic by Hazel Gaynor, actually gave me pause before pushing the $1.99 purchase button thinking that it might be just a “chick lit” novel. But for me, it turned out to be a most enjoyable historical novel that cleverly interweaves actual Titanic events, real life passengers and crewmembers with fictionalized characters based on real life persons. The dedication page to the Addergoole Fourteen at the beginning of the book, confirms that there really was a group of 14 Irish men and women from a single Catholic parish in a small village in Ireland who set sail on that regretful maiden voyage.

Knowing that more than 1,500 people lost their lives and only about 700 survived, there are probably over 1,000 different Titanic stories of real people’s lives that could be told but not many of them that could have been as intriguing as this one. In this book, the story leaps back and forth between April 1912 and April 1982 overlaying a captivating human drama onto the actual events familiar to anyone who has read Walter Lord ‘s landmark book, A Night to Remember. The story centers around one of the last women, a third class passenger no less, to step into a lifeboat that fateful night and her great-granddaughter 70 years later. It is a tale of discovery for both women whose lives unknowingly paralleled each other, and in spite of unfortunate happenstances for both, ultimately led to a fascinating and surprising climax. If events of the Titanic disaster interest you, you will absolutely enjoy this book.

To be continued…

Best Books of 2017 – Chapter 1

Happy New Year! I thought I would begin the New Year with a tradition I started last year by posting around New Year’s Day my favorite books from the prior year.

But unlike last year, for 2017 I did not set a specific goal of reading a certain number of books during the year. This was because I knew, even though in 2016, the 45 books I read was the most number of books I had ever read, I would likely beat that number in 2017 due to an unfair advantage—having more time to read. Effective 31 October 2017, I retired from my job of 35 years but even before the end of September, I had read as many books in the first nine months as I read in all of 2016. Turned out, as things wound down at work, I had extra time on my hands and so put it to good use by reading. Since the end of September, I have finished reading an additional thirteen books. So for 2017, I read a total of 58 books, 25 fiction and 33 non-fiction.

And just like I did in 2016, I started off the New Year literally on New Year’s Day reading—Bond, James Bond. But this time, rather than picking up with the few remaining titles I did not read in 2016, I actually read the biography of Bond’s creator entitled The Life of Ian Fleming, by John Pearson. This was a slightly tattered, hard-back book published in 1966 that my wife found at an estate sale.

Credit: 007.com

It was really intriguing to read how the real life of Fleming and the fictional life of Bond closely paralleled each other. Fleming truly did draw from his own life experiences in many of the stories included in his Bond books. What was even more fascinating was that Fleming actually lived through and survived some of the same dangers that Bond endured in his adventures. And of the women in his life, some met with similar fates to those in his books.

It was during World War II that Fleming was exposed to much of the espionage work that played important in his Bond books. Just like his created fictional character, Fleming was a commander in the Royal Navy where during the war; he planned and in some cases actively took part in covert missions. Having read 10 of the 14 Fleming Bond books, it never occurred to me that some of the events portrayed in the books were actually based on true to life experiences of the author’s.

But what was most surprising to learn was how Fleming got his start writing the Bond books. While there is a quote of Fleming during the war that he planned to write the “spy story to end all spy stories,” it was many years later before he actually sat down to do that, cranking it out in just seven weeks at his Jamaican winter home, Goldeneye, as merely a distraction while his future wife painted outdoors. And for the next three years, he did the same writing the next three books over his two-month winter break in Jamaica. Despite this dedicated, rigorous schedule, the books did not bring him the financial rewards that he had hoped to gain. It was at this point that he felt he had written out all the stories he had and planned to kill off Bond in his fifth book. But a unique turn of events saved both Fleming and Bond when an unexpected trip to Istanbul allowed the on-location research for what would become another of his successful Bond books, From Russia with Love.

As I read the historical account of each book and got a glimpse into the back-story behind each one, it gave me a more in-depth appreciation for the books I had already read. But it also prompted me to accelerate my reading pace so I could jump back to where I left off reading the Bond books last year. As I closed this book on the sad note of how his life ended too soon, it was with a new appreciation of how intertwined the lives of the author and James Bond were that I began again to read Bond experiencing the vitality and vigor of Fleming through Bond’s actions.

And no sooner had I finished his biography that I read my last four Bond books in just 10 days—For Your Eyes Only, The Spy Who Loved Me, The Man with the Golden Gun, and Octopussy. And in each I looked for and found the incorporation of real life tales in 007’s escapades. But for an avid Bond fan of the 1950s and 1960s who looked forward to their annual “Bond Fix” with the release of another book each year, these four (Fleming’s 8th, 10th, 13th, and 14th), in my opinion, were not his best.

Would I recommend reading all 14 of the Ian Fleming Bond books? Absolutely! Just bear in mind that after reading the first seven, you will likely be a bit disappointed in half of the last seven, two of which are actually compilations of short stories. And as I said last year, read them in order by publish date. After reading The Man with the Golden Gun this year, there were enough references back to You Only Live Twice to make me want to go back and read that one again.

If you took my recommendation last year and read this book by David Baldacci, then you are in for another treat. I cannot think of a book I have read by Baldacci that I have not liked or been disappointed in and I have been a fan of his for many years. He has several character series that I have thoroughly enjoyed, The Camel Club and Will Robie, being the most recent. But in 2016, I was introduced to Baldacci’s latest character, Amos Decker, a cop/detective who has an extremely rare condition that allows him to remember everything—hyperthymesia—an incredible advantage for someone in law enforcement to have not just a photographic memory, but also total recall.

So when I saw that David Baldacci had published a second book based on this character, The Last Mile, I knew it would be a must read for my 2017 reading.

As I found with the first Amos Decker book, as soon as I finished one chapter, I didn’t want to stop to see what happened next. This book is centered on a death row inmate, Melvin Mars, and the interesting past that led him to this status. Through the introduction of this new character, we learn even more historical facts about Amos’s past and the unique connection between Amos and the death row inmate.

As the story unfolds, you begin to feel that you are on a roller coaster as the plot takes unexpected twists and turns. And as with actual roller coasters, you don’t want to get off as some of the biggest and most exciting parts of the ride are at the very end where as all of the details are revealed, you learn that some of the events that led to Melvin’s conviction date back to other historical and factual crimes perpetrated almost 50 years earlier.

If you haven’t read the first Amos Decker book, read it before you read this newest one. And if you are like me after finishing both, your only hope is that Baldacci is already hard at work cranking the next book in this series (which he has now done).

            To be continued…

20th Anniversary

I reached another significant milestone this year. No not a 20th wedding or work anniversary; I actually achieved both of those many years ago. No this year, 2017, marked the twentieth year that I have been teaching a professional development course in the pharmaceutical industry on Analytical Method Validation. This 3-day course covers the development process drug manufacturers must complete in order to prove that their methods of analysis for testing drugs are acceptable to the Food & Drug Administration (FDA).

Several years ago, I wrote a series of blog posts about how I got started teaching as a part-time endeavor. At that time, our course—I teach it with another pharmaceutical professional—had reached a 15-year milestone. Just this past October, we actually presented the course for the 100th time, another significant achievement. Over those 20 years and 100 presentations, we have taught over 2,600 participants in what has turned out to be a very popular topic due in no large part to the lack of specific guidance from FDA.

This particular topic is one that I have always enjoyed and one I started out doing as a part of my job function over three and a half decades ago. Over the years, I have developed an approach to perform this function that mirrored the one developed by the person I teach with and so laid the groundwork for our co-development of this course.

One of the things that I have discovered about myself in presenting this course is that I really enjoy teaching. To me, it does not seem like work but rather more like play and given it is a topic I am very interested in, one I thoroughly enjoy talking about as well. Also, given the number of times we have presented it, I know the course material so well that there is no preparation time required; I just show up, load my PowerPoint slides, and start talking. We do occasionally make updates to the course to keep current with changing requirements in the industry but this is never an onerous task.

Because my employer does not pay me to teach this course, I have to take vacation time from work in order to participate. Given that I am “on vacation” when teaching, I share this concept with course participants by including vacation slides interspersed among my technical slides. These vacation slides are typically from locations where we teach and coincidently where I try to add in some non-teaching vacation time as well. And my opening vacation slide is from my favorite place in the world—Montreat—where I vacationed for many years growing up.

Assembly Inn overlooking Lake Susan

As I mentioned in that previous blog post, this course has allowed me to see the world. In addition to the designated US locations where we teach (San Francisco, Chicago, and New Brunswick, NJ), I have been to Amsterdam 29 times and Europe a total of 44 times. So while I have used much of my vacation time over the years to teach, it has been in some very interesting locales where I experienced some unique sites.

Aquaduct of Caesarea (Israel)

In that post, I also predicted that by the time I retired, I should be a million-miler frequent flyer with all the travel associated with teaching. Well I haven’t quite reached that level yet with just 728,517 miles so far. But that just means one more milestone to achieve in retirement.

When I wrote those posts several years ago, I also indicated that I wanted to develop a second course to teach. I have since done that, developing a course on Stability requirements in the pharmaceutical industry, another technical development activity drug manufacturers must complete in order to satisfy FDA requirements for establishing the expiration of a product. I have now taught that course six times since launching it in 2015.

And just this year, my brother developed a course that he began teaching for the same organization on another pharmaceutical topic. Next year, we have been able to schedule our respective courses back-to-back so in addition to our teaching, we will get to see each other, something that doesn’t happen that often given the many miles between our homes.

So as we near the end of this year and prepare to ring in a new year, I take pause to celebrate this teaching milestone. And if you happen to work in the pharmaceutical industry and need this type of training in the future, then maybe our paths will cross and you will join me in our vacation time together talking about one of these two exciting topics, at least exciting to me. Hopefully my enthusiasm for the subject will spill over and infect you as well.

Christmas Pool Liner?

To say that I have had a “love-hate” relationship with our pool over the 17 years we have had it is probably an understatement.

While I love to see family and friends having fun and enjoying the cool waters in the heat of the summer, there are times when the pool’s maintenance is quite an onerous task for me. I have written previously about some of the challenges I have faced in my “pool boy” responsibilities. But during the summer swimming season of 2017, our pool presented me with a new challenge—in spite of starting out the year in good shape.

In January when we had an unexpected and rare snow for Memphis, the pool looked pretty good…

…and by March as we were emerging from the cold weather, it still looked inviting although way too cold to swim.

We keep our pool open all year-long and have done so ever since 2001—the spring after we closed it for the first time—because all through the winter of 2000-2001, it was just so depressing to look out at it with the ugly black cover and all the gangly water tubes lying along the pool edge. This means I keep busy over the winter fishing out leaves and debris that blow into it as well as pumping excessive water from winter storms and then rebalancing the chemicals. Thus I have a year-round pool-boy job.

By May of 2017, when the water started to warm up, I began to deal with algae growth. With family coming in town during the month, I struggled to get the pool ready for swimming, which typically doesn’t occur until Memorial Day weekend.

With a lot of effort, I managed to get the algae taken care of but then was left with the water looking a bit cloudy. But at least it wasn’t green.

This cloudiness persisted all the way through the 4th of July weekend.

Finally at the end of July, I managed to get the water nice, clear, and sparkly the way it should be. But then I started to notice that I had to add water to the pool more frequently than I recalled. It is not usual in hot weather to lose a good bit of water due to evaporation. It didn’t take that much to get the water back up to the normal level so I didn’t think much about it.

But during August, which is typically the hottest month in Memphis, I began to add even more water. In fact I started to leave the hose trickling in the pool to keep the level where it needed to be to prevent the water level from dropping below the skimmer basket intakes, which would then cause the pump to suck air due to a lack of water.

In September, I got a letter from our local utility company that our water usage had increased dramatically over the summer and that we likely needed to call a plumber to figure out where a leak was. When I checked online what our water usage had been, I was amazed and realized that we must indeed have a pool leak somewhere. The letter and the quantitative water usage forced me out of my state of denial.

Ironically, at the end of September, I had two trips that would prevent me from my “hands-on” water management and so I decided to turn the pump and water hose off just to see how much the pool level would drop over the five days I would be traveling.

When I returned, I was amazed to see that the level had dropped several feet, down to where the pool light is and then it stayed there. Well I guess I discovered with my little experiment where the water leak was.

This was our second liner, which was new in 2009, here being visited by some local ducks as we were refilling it. We had planned on replacing this existing 8-year old liner in the spring of 2018. But now with the leak, that timeline was going to have to be accelerated.

October and November were very busy travel months for me so it was not until almost the end of November before we were able to schedule the installation of the new liner. By this time, the existing pool looked pretty disgusting reminding me of the news photos of neglected pools during the housing collapse of 2008 when underwater homeowners (pun intended) walked away from their homes.  Ours made even more reminiscent of those photos with multiple pool toys tossed in by our granddaughter (every time she came over, she would say “Fix pool Grand-e-addy”).

So it was with tidings of great joy when the pool company began to remove the old liner…

…and soon it was just a unpleasant memory.

Amazing how small of a box a 28,000-gallon swimming pool comes in.

“Just add water”

I guess installation is a little like stretching a fitted sheet onto a bed…

…and before you know it you just have to smooth out the wrinkles…

…which is accomplished with vacuum pumps (one on the left and right).

Water is added via a garden hose while the vacuums continue to run…

…and after a day or two, you have a nice clean pool ready for swimming. Only it was December 1st and no one in his or her right mind was going to swim in this cold water.

The final step is adding all the chemicals, which can run into hundreds of dollars. When we replaced the liner in 2009, I wished that we could have pumped the pool water into a tanker truck while the liner was replaced so that I could refill the pool with the same water and not have to buy all new chemicals. But this time, I was happy that the green water was going to be flushed out to a sewage treatment plant where it belonged.

Now all that was necessary was for me to continue my pool-boy responsibilities over the winter so that in the spring, we could once again enjoy our pool just like we did 18 years ago when it was first put in.

In a way, I guess you could say that the new pool liner is our big Christmas present to our whole family. Not necessarily what I would have considered for a big gift to the entire family, but one that I know we will all continue to enjoy in the years ahead. A present that was way too big to fit under the Christmas tree, so I had to just relocate the tree to where it was.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year swimming!

Mary Tyler Moore Show

This was one of the really good books I read in 2016. As I mentioned in my best of 2016 books blog post, what got me to read this book was a nostalgic memory from the first year I was married when my wife and I would watch a rerun of the show every afternoon after work. So I read this book with a number of visual fond memories from the TV series.

The TV show originally aired on Saturday night from 1970 to 1977. These happened to be the years I was in high school and college, a time when I would not have been caught dead at home on a Saturday night watching TV, which explained why I never saw the shows when they were originally broadcast.

One of the challenges for Mary in the show was actually overcoming the image of her not being Dick Van Dyke’s wife, Laura Petrie, but rather being the independent, self-sufficient single woman she portrayed in her new show. This she actually did extraordinarily well. But what I didn’t know from just having seen the reruns 10 years after they aired was what a huge impact the show had on television at the time. In its relatively short seven year run, it garnered numerous awards and was second only to All in the Family in terms of weekly viewership. Moreover, it was the first to feature a woman cast as the main character and employed many women writers at a time when men wrote the majority of shows.

With this historical knowledge of the series as background, I added all seven seasons (168 episodes) to my Netflix queue and began to watch the shows. I enjoyed hearing the theme song each episode and watching Mary drive her Ford Mustang to her new job in Minneapolis-St. Paul. And then at the conclusion of each introduction, watch Mary race out into the street and throw her cap into the air, an image one of the show creators wanted to convey analogous to when graduates have achieved their goal of graduation by tossing their mortar boards up in the air upon the conclusion of graduation.

Watching the first three seasons, I cannot recall a single episode that I didn’t break out into a really good belly laugh. The shows were just so funny. And for some, I could almost picture myself sitting on the balcony of our high-rise apartment while watching and laughing at these same episodes.

At the end of each of these first three seasons, there was an additional bonus of interviews with the surviving cast members. It was amazing how much older they all looked, except it seemed for Rhoda who still looked quite young. Sadly before I received the fourth season discs, Mary died at the age of 80. All of a sudden, the shows were in high demand and the first disc to season 4 showed “extremely long wait” on my queue. For some reason, Netflix shipped me disc #2 in February but it was not until June that I received disc #1. So there was an almost four month gap in my watching.

When I finally got the first disc to season four, it was interesting to see that the introduction had changed. No longer was Mary driving into her new life, she was boldly walking around the city as if she had arrived. I particularly liked seeing her confidently strut across the street in this outlandish outfit.

It was also intriguing to see all of the men Mary was paired up with over the many seasons. Probably the most unusual was Dick Van Dyke’s brother Jerry. If the producers wanted to distance her from her Dick Van Dyke days as indicated in the book, it seemed odd to have Jerry as a romantic encounter.

Throughout the seasons, Ted was ever the less than perfect anchorman. Several times references were made to once Ted’s true greatness had finally been recognized; he would no doubt become co-anchor with Walter Cronkite. So the episode when Walter actually came to meet Lou (they were old war buddies) was most enjoyable. Everyone was speechless and Walter got exceptionally long ovations before he could even say his few lines.

I found the fifth season shows particularly funny. I think the writers and producers were really getting into their stride. However, Rhoda was absent from the season even though she was pictured in the opening scenes shown while credits were displayed. In one episode everyone was buying her wedding presents and another they were flying off to New York for the wedding. I knew from the book that Rhoda was spun off to her own show but I was surprised they didn’t at least have a show that introduced us to her fiancé. Unless I fell asleep watching one of the episodes, I was really surprised. When Lou briefly rented Rhoda’s apartment after his separation, I knew Rhoda was gone for good.

The sixth season started off with another surprise, Phyllis had moved to San Francisco (she too was spun off into her own show). Now with both Rhoda and Phyllis gone, there was no reason for Mary to continue to live in her original apartment so one of the episodes showed Mary moving into a high-rise building where she would actually have a separate bedroom (rather than a sleeping couch in her studio apartment).

Part way through the fifth season, my wife began watching the shows with me and neither of us ever remembered any other apartment than the first one so we must never have seen either season 6 or 7. There was also a very emotional episode when Lou Grant’s ex-wife remarried and I figured we would not see her any more (I was right).

As the sixth season progressed, it seemed that the shows kept getting better and better. I found myself laughing more as the characters were getting more and more developed. And the subject matters portrayed became even more progressive. Like the time Ted and Georgette both dressed up in matching tuxedos for the annual Teddy award and Georgette sourly commented that together they looked like the little figures on top of a gay wedding cake (an issue we can’t seem to get over even 40 years later). Season 6 ended with Georgette pregnant right after adopting the cutest little young John Denver look-alike.

When I began to watch season seven, I started to feel sad knowing that the series was almost over. There were a number of really funny episodes though that kept me laughing and sometimes I would be laughing so hard, I would miss subsequent punch lines. This happened often whenever Murray would zing Sue Ann with a line and I would miss her snide response while she merrily rubbed Murray’s baldhead.

Over the seven seasons, Mary made great strides in achieving her goal of being successful as a single woman. As the book points out and as witnessed in watching all 168 episodes, this was a landmark show broaching many subjects on television for the first time. But at the same time, it is sad that she never could end up in a lasting relationship with a man worthy of her.

As I watched the last few episodes, I began to wonder how the show was going to end. One was a flashback to many of the bad parties that Mary had thrown and it was nice to see the old apartment and complete cast of younger characters that had started out on the show. When the final plot was revealed in the last episode, a surprise visit from two characters that had left offered a brief sense of joy.

But the final scene was absolutely a tear-jerker and when Mary pauses at the door she walked through for so many years and glances around the news room for the last time, it was with extreme sadness that I realized that as she turned out the lights, I was not only saying goodbye to Mary Richards, but to Mary Tyler Moore as well since her passing in January of this year.

Car Books – Fourth Gear

Continued from Car Books – Third Gear

After reading what a scandal Volkswagen perpetrated on the unsuspecting public throughout the world, I was ready for a more upbeat car book to read.

I thought this might be a good read as I recalled from previous car books how divisive the relationship had been between car guys and financial people within Ford. Bob Lutz is unique in that he held executive positions in all three of the Detroit car companies, Chrysler, Ford and GM (twice) and this book covered his second stint at GM. But it turned out not to be the book that I thought it was and having been written by Lutz himself, only portrayed the story from his perspective, which to me, based on his opinions of the job he could have done had he been CEO, seemed a bit haughty (although I did appreciate Lutz’s disdain for GM’s PMP process, a Performance Management Program I too despise).

So I next tried this book, Once Upon a Car: The Fall and Resurrection of America’s Big Three Automakers – GM, Ford, and Chrysler by Bill Vlasic. Vlasic, being a business reporter, gave a much more balanced accounting among the Big Three as well as the UAW and turned out to be a really good book.

This book covered the fall and rise of the Big Three as a result of the Financial Meltdown of 2008. But the book actually picked up the history starting in 2005, which provided helpful background information about the financial health of each company prior to the sub-prime mortgage collapse that took place in 2008. Prior to the events of 2008, I was not aware of the huge issues the car companies were facing. These details made for a very interesting read.

The storyline in the book alternated between each of the Big Three, which gave a complete perspective of what was happening in each. At the time, all three of the Detroit car companies were heavily dependent upon gas-guzzling trucks and large SUVs, vehicles that each company made enormous profits from. And with these three US manufacturers holding over 90% of the US truck market and with trucks outselling cars by a factor of nearly 2 to 1, their sales made for tidy profits. In this period, cars were just not that profitable and were viewed by most as boring offerings.

But then Hurricane Katrina hit in the summer of 2005 and suddenly gas prices shot up a dollar a gallon and sales of gas guzzling vehicles plummeted. With no attractive fuel-efficient cars to offer, sales shifted dramatically from large US makes to small economical cars from Japanese manufacturers.

The Big Three quickly found themselves with parking lots full of unsold vehicles and excess manufacturing capacity. Each of them, in their own way, made plans to shutter plants to reduce their excessive manufacturing capacity. But the prior contract agreements with the UAW and the legacy “Job Banks”, a union guarantee that even laid off workers would still get paid by the manufacturer, minimized the potential savings of simply closing plants. Therefore, costly worker buyouts, in some cases exceeding $100,000 per worker had to be offered as well. Added to this the high cost of healthcare coverage for both active workers and retirees limited the savings the car manufacturers could realize. These “legacy costs” added thousands of dollars to the cost of a US car that foreign competitors, with their national healthcare systems, just did not have thus giving foreign car companies a financial competitive advantage.

Negotiations with the UAW began to occur and with the losses mounting, progress over reducing these legacy costs began to be made as the Union realized bankrupt car companies would be bad for all parties concerned. At one point during this period, GM was losing a billion dollars a month and Ford and Chrysler were each having record losses.

Chrysler, the one company in better financial shape, thanks to their relationship with Daimler (Daimler-Chrysler at the time), struggled with making progress with the union. That is until Daimler decided to unload Chrysler selling them to Cerberus Investments.

Meanwhile, Kirk Kerkorian was trying to wrestle control of GM from its management team by purchasing up to 10% of its stock and placing his right hand man on the GM board. His efforts ultimately failed which left GM in a precarious position having had the added distraction of fending off Kerkorian. To try to sell its backlog of vehicles, GM launched the idea to offer, “employee pricing” to everyone. While it helped them unload many more unsold vehicles, the pricing meant little to no profit and in some cases even a loss on the transaction.

At Ford, a different approach was being taken. Their plan was named the “Way Forward” which included plant closings, improvements in quality and new car offerings to spur sales. To finance this effort, Ford planned to borrow 20 billion dollars by mortgaging everything, even the Ford name. But Bill Ford didn’t think all this would be enough and so was trying to bring in a new executive to replace himself. After several highly qualified candidates declined, Bill brought in Alan Mulally from Boeing (a story that is told very well in American Icon: Alan Mulally and the Fight to Save Ford Motor Company by Bryce G. Hoffman). Ford’s borrowing in 2006 when credit was available was quite fortuitous given the collapse of the credit market in 2008.

In 2008 when GM and a Cerberus owned Chrysler went in search of credit to help fund their cost reduction plans, none was available. Knowing that the only way forward for GM and Chrysler was to continue to reduce their size and work force, these buyout and closure costs along with a plummeting of the US auto market from a high of 16 million vehicles to around 10 million units, resulted in their largest losses ever. The catastrophic decline in the auto market even left Ford with their largest loss in their 100-year existence.

Secretly GM approached Ford about merging (a fact I did not know) but Ford flatly declined. Jilted, GM next approached Chrysler about combining their two companies but was again turned down once it became apparent to Chrysler that it was just an attempt to save GM.

That Fall, just as Obama was about to be elected president, GM approached President Bush about the possibility of garnering government loans—a request for 10 billion of the TARP money that had been allocated to rescue the banking industry. The answer was no.

After Obama won the election and promised he would not let the US auto industry die, GM, Ford, and Chrysler went together to Congress to ask for help. Congress’s initial rebuff following a grueling two days of questioning was made only worse by the highly publicized debacle of the CEOs winging it from Detroit to Washington on their corporate jets to beg for billions in relief. Their only hope was a more successful second trip to Washington, this time each CEO having been driven in a hybrid vehicle made by their own company.

By this time Ford, given their previous borrowing, decided to forgo any loans from the US government. So it was just GM and Chrysler that requested loans. These loans came with very strict requirements which GM and Chrysler were ultimately not able to meet. This failure led to them both declaring bankruptcy with even the CEO of GM becoming a casualty, one of the few private company executives ever to be “fired” by the federal government.

With active US government participation, a new, but much smaller GM emerged from bankruptcy with the government becoming a 60% owner (this prompted the phrase “Government Motors”, technically a true moniker at least until the new GM issued stock and the US government sold off their shares to recoup their investment cost). For Chrysler, the government forced them to merge with Fiat, the Italian maker of these cute little cars.

Within two years, all three companies returned to profitable operations and today, are much stronger and much more able to compete in the US market. Looking back to these disastrous events that took place almost 10 years ago, it’s frightening to think how close the US auto industry came to becoming extinct. Since hindsight always provides a 20-20 perspective, it is easy now to say that had not the hard decisions been made and the hard work expended, our only choices today when purchasing a car would be a foreign-made or foreign-owned model!

And thanks to this book, I now had the story behind how it all came to fruition.

Car Books – Third Gear

Continued from Car Books – Second Gear

This is a car book I wanted to read even before I knew it was a car book. Ever since the story began to unfold of the Volkswagen Diesel Emission Scandal in 2015, I knew this would be an intriguing story to read. As I learned new details almost daily from my online Autoweek news magazine at the time, the fraud became even more incredible and I hoped someone would write a book. Thanks to Jack Ewing writing Faster, Higher, Farther: The Volkswagen Scandal, that book is now published and thanks to my wife’s unprompted gift of it to me for Father’s Day, I now know so much more.

I was already familiar with how Volkswagen got its start, essentially as a propaganda car company by Hitler prior to World War II so I was a little puzzled when the book traced the beginning that far back. But through an abbreviated history of the company, along with its founding of Audi in 1969 and its close relationship with Porsche, important details were provided about the automotive environment at Volkswagen. And learning about the senior management of the company and their business philosophies—their attitude of make it work or you’re fired—helped me understand how such a scandal could actually transpire.

As I read, there were several learning’s that surprised me.

Turns out, this was not the first time a car company or engine manufacturer had implemented a “defeat device” to disengage emission equipment to improve performance. In the 1990s, there were three separate cases, Cadillac, Ford, and Cummins Diesel that had programmed Engine Control Units (ECUs, the onboard computers) to disengage in certain situations. In each case, the ECU was programmed to recognize when it was undergoing testing—when the engine was driving the wheels but the steering wheel was not being turned—and employ all emission equipment to function properly during the testing. Once deceit was proven, the Cummins case alone resulted in a 1 billion dollar fine by EPA.

The introduction of the Turbo Direct Injection (TDI) Diesel by Volkswagen in 2009 supported Volkswagen’s professed goal of becoming the world dominant automaker outpacing all other car companies in numbers of sales. Diesel-power, while less common among passenger cars in the US, offered advantages of reduced carbon dioxide emissions and better fuel efficiency (relative to gasoline) and afforded Volkswagen an opportunity to compete against Toyota’s highly fuel-efficient Prius. But due to the higher operating temperature inside the cylinder, diesel engines produce much more nitrogen oxides, the gases that cause smog and have a direct link to asthma and other deleterious health issues. The challenge presented to the Volkswagen engineers in 2006 was to create a clean diesel engine for this planned 2009 launch.

Since Audi had marketed a diesel engine since 1999, the engineers looked there first to see how they had addressed emissions difficulties. When they began to examine the ECU programming, they found an unusual section of code that had been included to reduce the loud clacking noise diesel engines make when they are first started. They realized, this was a defeat device as it turned off emission equipment to reduce the noise.

When the engineers kept encountering issues achieving the clean diesel goal, it was suggested that Volkswagen use a similar defeat device to address the poor car performance that resulted when the emission equipment was fully operational. It was reluctantly pursued and since Volkswagen did not write their own ECU code, they had to instruct Bosch, the ECU manufacturer to include it, which broadened the scandal even further. As with the previous devices, these were programmed to recognize when they were being emission tested in the laboratory so that emissions would be within acceptable levels.

By mid-2015, thanks in no small part to their TDI diesel cars, Volkswagen overtook Toyota as the largest global carmaker in terms of sale volume. But interestingly, it was events in Europe that began to unravel the fraud.

Diesel cars are much more common in Europe because of diesel’s price advantage over gasoline and diesel’s superior fuel efficiency. But in spite of still meeting less stringent European emission standards, actual pollution within cites was found not to be decreasing as it should (based on calculations) but rather was increasing. The European organization similar to EPA contracted with West Virginia University (WVU) to test several diesel cars both in laboratory settings and on the road. The WVU staff just happened to test two Volkswagens and a BMW in California where the California Air Resources Board (CARB) had even more stringent requirements than EPA. The results were eye opening. While all three cars easily passed the laboratory test, only the BMW met emission requirements under actual road conditions. On the road, the two Volkswagens exceeded the nitrogen oxide limit by as much as 20 to 30 times.

Still not understanding that fraud was at play, future testing was conducted by CARB. Conflicting data continued to pile up between laboratory and on road testing. Then CARB decided to extend the standardized lab test sequence and discovered a remarkable result. One minute after the test was scheduled to end, emissions jumped dramatically on the car still rolling on the tester.

CARB first asked Volkswagen kindly for explanations but since none were forth coming, began to demand answers. No reasonable answers were provided and so in July 2015, CARB chose to use their nuclear option threatening not to certify the 2016 diesel cars that were already sitting in US ports, an act that would actually preclude their sale not just in California, but anywhere in the US.

From the time of the original WVU study in 2014 through all of the testing by CARB in 2015, Volkswagen continued to obfuscate the truth about the scandal by providing misleading and confusing answers to CARB. Volkswagen eventually admitted to a technical issue with the emission systems in early 2015 and agreed to recall and fix affected diesel cars. But following CARB’s retesting of the repaired diesel cars which still gave failing results, Volkswagen finally admitted that a defeat device had in fact been included in all 11 million diesel cars sold worldwide, a fraud on par with Enron.

The legal process that ensued was complex since it involved government regulators, states, VW dealers, and car owners. Partly due to Volkswagen’s covering up of the fraud, the legal settlement between Volkswagen, US authorities and car owners amounted to 15 billion dollars, well above the previous 1 billion defeat device fine, only to be increased by another 5 billion the following year related to another type of Volkswagen diesel sold.

While this was not the type of car story that would typically pique a car lover’s interest of cars, it was nonetheless, a very interesting tale of just how bad and how potentially unscrupulous a car company could be.