8 Thoughts on Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House”

I picked up my copy of Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House last night at 5:45pm; finished it today at 5:45pm.

Here’s what I think.

1. It’s fascinating in an I-can’t-look-away-at-the-17-car-pileup-with-lots-of-ambulances way, but I didn’t learn anything reading it. The book is the signature aria in a media opera of confirmation bias– white wine glasses will shatter in liberal living rooms across our fair land.To compare, in November I read Michael Lewis’ Vanity Fair article Inside Trump’s Cruel Campaign Against the U.S.D.A.’s Scientists and learned a lot about the staggering scope of Agriculture Department’s endeavor as well as the impact of the Trump Administration’s unprecedented failure to show up to work after the inauguration.

Lewis’ article was just as scary as Wolff’s book, but at the end of reading Lewis I felt like I’d eaten an apple. With Wolff, it’s a bag of Cheetos.

2. If you’re going to read Fire and Fury, then read it SOON because even though the action winds up just three months ago with Steve Bannon’s October 2017 exit from the White House, the book is already dated by the never-ending, Chinese water torture drip drip drip of subsequent scandals and outrages (Roy Moore, “my button is bigger”).The book is radioactive in two ways: first, it’s poison to most of the people portrayed– not so much character assassination as a Pompeii-like lava flow concretizing everything and everyone into poses of abject despair and expressions of disappointed surprise.It’s also radioactive because you can measure the relevance of Wolff’s book in half-lives with each half-life being about a day.

When I picked up my copy of Fire and Fury at Annie Bloom’s Bookstore last night (I’d reserved it the night before), there were people lined up and disappointed to learn that there were no unclaimed copies left: a new batch was coming in today, and another next week, and so on. My fellow customers will be even more disappointed when they finally get the book, only for the nation to have metabolized it and moved on.

3. Heaven save us, it’s all true. Everything you’ve dreaded about the Trump administration, every time you’ve denied that sinking feeling in your stomach, every time you’ve thought that you were reading something from The Onion and then realized in slow-motion dismay that it isn’t satire… don’t expect relief by reading Wolff’s book.

4. It doesn’t matter. The saddest thing of all about Wolff’s book is that it won’t change a single mind about Trump. The people who are reading it are already convinced that he’s a madman who should be pushed down the dumbwaiter and out of the Oval Office today. The people who support Trump won’t read it because Fox News has already directed them to dismiss it as lies and fakery– if Fox told them the Earth was flat they’d believe globes were a liberal media conspiracy. The people who are on the fence won’t read it because they are already numb.

5. When information breaks from open secret to common knowledge it can have huge impact, see the downfalls of Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer and the rest of the predator brotherhood. At one point, thinking about #MeToo and about Michael Suk-Young Chwe’s notion of common knowledge in his book Rational Ritual, hope fluttered in my breast that Fire and Fury would break the cycle of denial about things like Trump’s illiteracy, complete absence of policy, inability to focus, and Everest-sized narcissism. For a society to function, Chwe writes, “Knowledge of the message is not enough; what is also required is knowledge of others’ knowledge, knowledge of others’ knowledge of others’ knowledge, and so on– that is, ‘common knowledge.'”With the Wolff book, though, the hope faded because we’ve already all known this stuff for a long time.

Gosh, though, I hope I’m wrong.

6. When Episode Three of Star Wars (“Revenge of the Sith”) came out the fans realized that while we had thought the original three movies (episodes four, five and six) were Luke Skywalker’s story, in fact the entirety of the six movies were the biography of Anakin Skywalker / Darth Vader. Likewise, Fire and Fury is really the Steve Bannon story. If Trump were capable of reading the book then that fact would probably gall him most of all.

7. The other movie comparison that came to me as I was reading the book was Being There, except in Fire and Fury everybody in the cast always knows that Chauncey Gardner (a.k.a. Trump)… has special needs, but he gets elected anyway.

8. If you’ve ever seen a dog chasing a car, wondered, “what would he do if he actually caught it?” and then imagined the expression on the dog’s face when that happened, then you’ve got a clear sense of Trump’s reaction to winning the presidency.

This last year we’ve been watching a man try to eat a car.

My 2017 in Books

This is the fourth year that I’ve kept a running list of every book that I’ve completed for the first time and then shared that list here as the first thing I post on either the last day of the old year or the first of the new.

You can see the 2016 list here, the 2015 list here, and the 2014 list here. As always I want to thank my friend David Daniel for the inspiration to do this.

January is a future-forward month for many folks in my line of work with CES beginning in a week (I’ll be leading VIP tours with Story-Tech once again) and myriad predictions about the year ahead by different sorts of thinkers across the spectrum, and that future orientation is one reason I like to start the year with look back at some of the places my mind has toured and when it toured them.

I read 50 books in 2017, which sounds like a lot but they weren’t all BIG books, and some of them were “chomp chomp, gulp” experiences. 20 were non-fiction books about history, science, business and where those all intersect; a bit less than half were science fiction and fantasy, and the remainder were crime fiction of one sort or another. It was a light year for literary fiction, but I have hopes for 2018.

I was surprised to see that the vast majority of the 50 were new books, published in either 2016 or 2017.

For those of you with short attention spans, the BEST book I read in 2017 was Joan C. Williams’ White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America (chunky comments and link below). 

Here’s the efficient list:

1. Sawyer, Robert J. Humans (Neanderthal Parallax Vol 2).

2. Ariely, Dan. Payoff: the Hidden Logic that Shapes our Motivations.

3.  Ito, Joi & Jeff Howe. Whiplash: How to Survive our Faster Future.

4. Dunstall, S.K., Confluence: a Linesman Novel.

5. Moon, Youngme. Different: Escaping the Competitive Herd.

6. Stone, Brad. The Upstarts: How Uber, Airbnb, and the Killer Companies of the New Silicon Valley Are Changing the World.  

7. Dick, Philip K. Ubik.

8. Aaronovitch, Ben. The Hanging Tree: a Rivers of London Novel.

9. Bujold, Lois McMaster. Mira’s Last Dance (Penric & Desdemona).

10. Hochschild, Arlie Russell. Strangers in their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right. 

11. Webb, Amy. The Signals are Talking: Why Today’s Fringe is Tomorrow’s Mainstream; Forecast and Take Action on Tomorrow’s Trends, Today. 

12. Servon, Lisa. The Unbanking of America: How the New Middle Class Survives. Finished 4/23/17. 

13. Scalzi, John. The Collapsing Empire.

14. Wu, Tim. The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads.

15. Allen, Jonathan and Amie Parnes. Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign.

16. Riordan, Rick. The Trials of Apollo: Book Two: The Dark Prophecy.

17. Liu, Cixin. The Three-Body Problem.

18. Williams, Joan C. White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America. 

19. Lee, Yoon Ha. Ninefox Gambit.

20. Suarez, Daniel. Change Agent. 

21. Rosenblum, Jeff with Jordan Berg. Friction: Passion Brands in the Age of Disruption.

22. Moon, Elizabeth. Cold Welcome (Vatta’s Peace)  

23. Asimov, Isaac. Foundation.

24. Cooper, Susan. King of Shadows.

25. Winslow, Don. The Force.

26. Lee, Sharon and Steve Miller. The Gathering Edge: A New Liaden Universe Novel.

27. Connelly, Michael. The Late Show: Introducing Detective Renée Ballard. 

28. Aaronovitch, Ben. The Furthest Station.

29. Chwe, Michael Suk-Young. Rational Ritual: Culture, Coordination & Common Knowledge.

30. Bujold, Lois McMaster. Penric’s Fox (Penric & Desdemona).

31. Stephens-Davidowitz, Seth. Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell us About Who We Really Are.

32. Singer, P.W. and August Cole. Ghost Fleet: a Novel of the Next World War.

33. Doctorow, Cory. Walkaway: a Novel.

34. Harari, Yuval Noah. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.

35. Stephenson, Neal and Nicole Galland. The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O., a Novel.

36. Asaro, Catherine. The Bronze Skies (Skolian Empire Series Book 8). 

37. Hoffman, Bob. Bad Men: How Advertising Went from a Minor Annoyance to a Major Menace. 

38. Galloway, Scott. The Four: the Hidden DNA of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google.

39. Leckie, Ann. Provenance.

40. Bujold, Lois McMaster. The Prisoner of Lemnos: a Penric and Desdemona Story.

41. Connelly, Michael. Two Kinds of Truth: a Bosch Novel. 

42. Olson, Erika S. Zero-Sum Game: the Rise of the World’s Largest Derivatives Exchange.

43. Newitz, Annalee. Autonomous: a Novel. Finished November 25, 2017.

44. Eastland, Sam. Eye of the Red Tsar: a Novel of Suspense.

45. Alter, Adam. Irresistible: the rise of additive technology and the business of keeping us hooked.

46. Weir, Andy. Artemis: a Novel.

47. Trillin, Calvin. Alice, Let’s Eat: Further Adventures of a Happy Eater.

48. Eastland, Sam. Shadow Pass: a Novel of Suspense.

49. Eastland, Sam. Archive 17: a Novel of Suspense. 

50. Mehta, Kumar. The Innovation Biome: a Sustained Business Environment Where Innovation Thrives.

For those of you who are ready to dig in, here’s the really-quite-a-bit-longer version:

Sawyer, Robert J. Humans (Neanderthal Parallax Vol 2) (Tor Books). Finished January 6.

The first of two sequels to Hominids, which I read late in 2016, this continued the story of universe-hopping Neanderthals who came from a parallel world where Neanderthals survived and homo sapiens died out. The conceit is sufficiently fascinating — and an exercise in appreciating the unpredictability and “it could have happened another way” quality of natural selection — that I finished the book, but not so terrific that I read the third installment.

2.  Ariely, Dan. Payoff: the Hidden Logic that Shapes our Motivations (TED Books, Simon & Schuster). Finished January 12.

This agreeable small volume is a TED book — a collection of similarly agreeable small volumes that reminds me of the Quantum Books that the University of California Press tried a couple decades back with the idea that it might be a good thing to publish books that it would only take the average college-educated reader an evening to read.  

Unlike his academic books, here Ariely is speaking to a mainstream audience about motivation, de-motivation, how different sorts of motivation interact, and how — despite an increasingly transactional, short-term mindset foisted upon us by the combo-platter of the gig economy and Wall Street’s quarterly earnings focus — the most motivational things in our lives have more to do with a longer time scales and social connection.  

Reading Ariely’s book reminded me of other books that deal with similar issues: Michael J. Sandel’s What Money Can’t Buy: the Moral Limits of Markets, Samuel Bowles’ The Moral Economy: Why Good Incentives Are No Substitute for Good Citizens (haven’t finished this one yet), and Adam Grant’s Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success

3.  Ito, Joi & Jeff Howe. Whiplash: How to Survive our Faster Future (Grand Central Publishing). Finished January 21.

I enjoyed this book, one of several “yikes! Things are changing fast and in multiple directions all at the same time!” books recently published, another being Thomas Friedman’s Thank You For Being Late: an Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Acceleration, which I still haven’t finished reading.

Rather than breaking new ground, Ito and Howe’s book usefully collects and organizes a group of common themes, or maybe memes, that have bubbled up over the last decade or so in books, TED talks and the like, and the authors deploy these themes in binary opposites: emergence over authority, pull over push, compasses over maps and the like. Some of these memes are so well worn that it’s hard to muster enthusiasm for them: businesses have to learn to fail fast, try new things, decentralize from a command a control model and embrace complexity. Yawn. 

On the other hand, when the authors dig into actual stories some of the memes come alive, like in the “risk over safety chapter” when they describe how one company spent $3 million dollars on a feasibility study for an MIT Media Lab proposal that only would have cost $600,000. “Implementing risk over safety does not mean blinding yourself to risk. It simply means understanding that as the cost of innovation declines, the nature of risk changes” (page 117). 

Likewise, in “systems over objects” the authors talk about “shifting the emphasis [at the Media Lab] from creating objects to building relationships” (225), using Google’s self-driving car initiative as an example. “In describing its self-driving car, Google has emphasized that the car itself is merely an object– the artificial intelligence that drives it is the system, and it must mesh seamlessly into the other systems it touches.” Perhaps the strongest chapter is “diversity over ability,” which relates a series of illuminating anecdotes about how “distance from the field” empowers outsiders to solve problems to which experts are blind because “the less exposed a given solver is to the discipline in which the problem resides, the more likely he or she is to solve it” (182).   

The authors are genuinely optimistic about how we humans will prosper in an age of increasing technological change, which is refreshing. Sometimes that optimism blinds them to the dark sides of the trends they chart: for example, the authors celebrate crowdsourcing (Jeff Howe invented the term) and how EaaS (everything as a service) reduces startup costs for entrepreneurs, but they don’t recognize how this same trend leads to the “gig economy” where nobody has health benefits or a 401K.

A few miscellaneous observations: the book is mercifully short (less than 240 pages) with lots of white space; as a physical artifact it has a sensuous quality that is engaging. I don’t think I would have liked it nearly as much as an e-book; the authors end each chapter with a PS written by only one of them, usually with an interesting personal story. 

4. Dunstall, S.K., Confluence: a Linesman Novel (Ace). Finished January 24.

Delightful and absorbing third installment in the Linesman series: this one was better put together and more focused than the first two, and I whizzed through it in a couple of days. One thing I liked about it was that it had fewer points of view than the others, just Linesman Ean Lambert and his former bodyguard Dominque Radko. Solid space opera.

5.   Moon, Youngme. Different: Escaping the Competitive Herd (Crown Business). Finished February 2.

One index of how seriously I take a book is how many notes I take. I took a LOT with this book, which was recommended by my friend Carol Phillips, whose recommendations are always strong.

Moon shrewdly dissects the weirdness of competitors all having the same features on parallel products, which commodifies everything. The diagnosis part of the first half is worthwhile and stronger than the solutions of the second.

6. Stone, Brad. The Upstarts: How Uber, Airbnb, and the Killer Companies of the New Silicon Valley Are Changing the World (Little, Brown).  Finished February 11.

An impressive insider’s tour of the first eight years of these companies, with clear “I’m finishing this just as 2016 ends” up-to-the-minute details. Like Stone’s last book on Amazon (The Everything Store, 2013), this is an enjoyable read, full of engaging stories about the compelling personalities behind the companies. It’s hard not to fall in love with your subject, and so I’m sympathetic to Stone’s positive bias towards Uber and Airbnb, although as a transportation researcher I’m much more skeptical of Uber’s future.

7. Dick, Philip K. Ubik (Mariner Books). Finished February 17.

Prescient 1969 science fiction novel from the author of the novels that became three classic movies: Blade Runner, Total Recall and Minority Report. Ubik has a philosophical underpinning to a satire of the EaaS (Everything as a Service) transformation happening in our lives today. It’s also damned funny, particularly when the protagonist can’t get out of his apartment until he pays the door a five cent fee because he signed a “door as a service” contract.

8. Aaronovitch, Ben. The Hanging Tree: a Rivers of London Novel (Daw, Penguin Group). Finished February 24.

I enjoy this series — a kind of English X-Files where a special team of detectives investigate crimes involving the supernatural — light fare though it is. The author started in British TV, which explains why reading this book feels like watching a season of a low budget but well constructed series. The author counts on the reader having read — and remembering — all the previous books, and this means that character development… Isn’t. A fun romp. Deserves to be a series on SyFy or the like.

9. Bujold, Lois McMaster. Mira’s Last Dance (Penric & Desdemona) (Subterranean Press and self-published via Amazon and iBooks). Finished March 3.

Bujold is my favorite living science fiction and fantasy writer, so any time she releases something new it provokes my immediate purchase and abrupt disappearance from family life. The Penric and Desdemona series of novellas about a wizard and his pet demon are short enough that my wife and kids don’t miss me for long. (More on the business model for this and others below at #28.)

10. Hochschild, Arlie Russell. Strangers in their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right (The New Press). Finished April 2.

Brilliant psychological profile of Tea Party Republicans and why to liberal eyes they so consistently vote against their own interests. This book is like a scholarly (although engaging) companion to J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy (see last year’s list).

My one gripe with the book is how little Hochschild engages with technology and media proliferation throughout. She mentions people’s Twitter feeds and Facebook communities from time to time, but doesn’t have a pervasive take on how, for example, alt-right websites and media to the right of Fox News has normalized Fox, and how that has impacted the information that her Tea Party subjects internalize.

11. Webb, Amy. The Signals are Talking: Why Today’s Fringe is Tomorrow’s Mainstream; Forecast and Take Action on Tomorrow’s Trends, Today (Public Affairs). Finished April 3.

Interesting book with a bunch of razor sharp insights — in particular on why Google is interested in Self-Driving Cars and what a potential success scenario for Magic Leap might mean for the world — and some very good questions to bear in mind as one is thinking about what’s coming. I like Webb’s notion of a “fringe map” with nodes and connections, which she develops as she’s thinking through new technologies and behaviors and how they will impact other things.

As a futurist, this was a useful book for me to have read.  

On the other hand, Webb’s methodology (six vectors one way, ten trends another) is so complex as to be unusable, which makes me think that in part she has created that deliberately in order to have the book act as an advertisement for her company without giving away the store.  

12. Servon, Lisa. The Unbanking of America: How the New Middle Class Survives (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). Finished April 23. 

This was a close runner up to the Williams’ book for best book of my year. Sermon spent months as an undercover academic working at check cashing services, payday lenders and the like to get a up-close-and-personal feel for why millions of Americans are unbanked. The short answer is that they cannot afford the banks predatory fees, about which I have more to say here. Servon’s combination of Geertzian thick description and shrewd analysis makes this a compelling read as well as a convincing piece of analysis.

13. Scalzi, John. The Collapsing Empire (Tor Science Fiction). Finished April 30, having started it the previous afternoon.

There is no other SF writer working today who so powerfully channels and updates the style of Robert Heinlein. (This is a high compliment.) Scalzi is a writing machine, and this new series explores what would happen to a galaxy-wide empire if the wormholes that link it together began to evaporate.

14. Wu, Tim. The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads (Vintage). Finished May 7.

Wu’s description of how television’s entrance into the home changed how much advertising had access to the private life of citizens was insightful. It was also salutary to have somebody point out that we’re all subservient to an almost-contractual exchange of attention for value that most of us never consciously agreed to and of which the terms vary wildly and beyond our control or even awareness. 

On the flawed side, there was a lot of sturm und drang about how bad the attention merchants have been for us, but it’s like the old saw about the weather: people complain but nobody does anything about it. At points in Wu’s book it sounded like he was going to articulate a plan for how to take back some of the attention that gets frittered away by media and technology — like what Levitin talks about in The Organized Mind although from more of a law and policy perspective — but Wu never gets there.

15. Allen, Jonathan and Amie Parnes. Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign (Crown). Finished May 18.

Well-written, compelling, incredibly depressing. As I read this book my most-frequent reaction was to mutter, “no… no… no…” at how many avoidable mistakes the Clinton campaign made. I guess I was feeling particularly masochistic in May.

16. Riordan, Rick. The Trials of Apollo: Book Two: The Dark Prophecy (Disney-Hyperion). Finished May 26.

The latest installment in the Percy Jackson universe of Greek demigods. Both of my kids were  devoted to this series at one point, although now the teenager has aged out of it. I was the first to read the first five-book series when I was on a LOT of planes for business and needed something light. Books 1-5 were terrific. The many sequels have been less great, although still quite good. The 12-year-old likes me to read this series with him, so I do.  

Like the first book in this series, the story is action-packed and well constructed. I like that in this series Riordan goes back to using single first-person narrator, in this case the defrocked Apollo who has been turned into a mortal teenager with only limited access to his godly powers. It is a somewhat-entertaining departure that Apollo is conceited and self-centered as a narrator, which seems appropriate for the Greek gods, even if it gets tired pretty quickly. I’ll read the next one, too.

17. Liu, Cixin. The Three-Body Problem (Tor Books). Finished May 27.

Renny Gleeson recommended this book, and he doesn’t recommend things lightly. I got it at the library and was finally about to start reading it when my renewals ran out and it got recalled, so I bought it and dug back in.  

It’s a slow, long, challenging story, so I wound up taking breaks from it… and also getting seduced by the easy-like-Sunday-morning quality of the Scalzi novel and my desire to keep up with my boy by reading the Riordan.  

Liu’s book is difficult for a lot of reasons, one of which is that it’s translated from the Chinese and therefore requires more effort than a book by a Westerner. Beyond that, one of the key premises — that you need to be trained to understand an alien culture by experiencing that culture in a VR video game that takes a long, long time to master — is also a difficult cultural translation, even though this one is fictional.  

Not a world-shattering experience, but it is quite good.

18. Williams, Joan C. White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America (Harvard Business Review Press). Finished June 2.

Best book of the year.

If a webcam had been trained at my face while I was reading this book my expression would probably have been one of slowly dawning horror. If a comic-strip thought balloon had been connected to my head, it might have read, “Oh dear. I guess I really do live in even more of a bubble than I thought I did.”

Of the four “How did Trump become president?” books I’ve read, this is the most illuminating.

Emerging from a celebrated HBR article written in the feverish November days after the election and its shocking outcome, Williams has expanded her central argument into a compelling, direct, bracing and impressively short book. At 131 pages of text with another 50 pages of apparatus (notes, index), I read this book swiftly and with focused attention.

The reason White Working Class is so bracing is that while other books on the topic focus on the failures of working class conservatives to understand how badly the Republicans serve their economic interests (JD Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers in The Own Land) or on how it was Hillary Clinton’s fault for running a poor campaign (Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes’ Shattered), Williams instead focuses squarely on how badly progressives understand the values and priorities of the white working class.  

In other words, Williams argues, the problem is us. 

Trump’s rise isn’t the fault of the Tea Party Republicans or duped Rust Belt workers, it’s our fault, the fault of Democrats who not only have neglected to make a case that the Democratic Party understands the desires and needs of the white working class in favor of other groups but also have condescended to the white working class for generations. 

It is neither trivial nor an accident, Williams argues, that moronic Homer Simpson is the most salient media representation of a white working class father who supports his family while his wife Marge stays at home to care for the house and children. Williams also mentions Archie Bunker and Al Bundy, and I’d toss Peter Griffin into the mix as well. White working class fathers visible in the media  (which is not a common sight in any event) are obese, crude and stupid.  

Folks on the left may fume and roll their eyes at Fox News and how it panders to the basest instincts of its viewers, but, Williams argues, the reason that Fox and its ilk have been able to convince the white working class that the mainstream media is the liberal media is that the mainstream media has abandoned the white working class by trivializing its values and priorities.

A don’t-miss read.

19. Lee, Yoon Ha. Ninefox Gambit (Solaris). Finished June 10.

Interesting space opera with “calendrical rot” as a central conceit where different technologies are enable by different notions of time and moving outside of the dominant culture’s calendar is heresy. It’s a speedy, good story with a strong female protagonist in Cheris. My one issue with the book concerns its world building: a lot of things are poorly explained or not explained at all, which can be a bit confusing.

20. Suarez, Daniel. Change Agent (Dutton). Finished June 15.

Fascinating 2045-set sci fi thriller where genetic manipulation has become the dominant industry on the planet, with cars grown out of synthetic shrimp, “degans” eat “deathless meat” that is vat grown, and designer babies are illegal, but only sometimes. I inhaled this book starting on a plane-ride home on a Tuesday night and then finished it on Thursday night. Recommended by Susan MacDermid.

21. Rosenblum, Jeff with Jordan Berg. Friction: Passion Brands in the Age of Disruption (powerHouse Books). Finished June 17, 2017.

The Drum ran my review of this terrific book. Here are a few sample paragraphs:

Rosenblum’s thesis is that friction gets in the way of business success in a fractal manner: the always-self-replicating pattern ranges from how a product category removes friction from culture at the broadest level, down to how a specific brand of a product removes friction from the lives of customers, down to how removing internal friction from the business creating the product aligns the team, and then down to how removing friction from an individual’s life and work habits can bring more productivity, creativity and satisfaction.

This complex but enabling take on friction is what distinguishes Rosenblum’s take from the commonplace business cliche about friction (i.e., it’s bad).

Lest you think the book hovers at a platitudinous level emitting self-help-style bromides, Rosenblum connects his argument to case studies linking the elimination of friction to business success, economic success, rather than marketing vanity metrics.

Read the whole review of the book on The Drum.

22. Moon, Elizabeth Cold Welcome (Vatta’s Peace) (Del Rey). Finished June 21.

Terrific military SF coming at least a decade after the last book in this series. Since I hadn’t reread the previous volumes some of the references and relationships didn’t resonate, but this is a minor quibble. A compelling read that I sailed through in a handful of days.

23. Asimov, Isaac. Foundation (Bantam Spectra Books). Finished June 24.

Classic SF. I’d been thinking of Asimow’s notion of psychohistory in the context of AI, which prompted me to read the first volume of the trilogy. It’s an interesting, cerebral, canny and thoughtful take on how a civilization might survive a dark age.

24. Cooper, Susan. King of Shadows (Margaret K. McElderry Books;). Finished July 4.

Delightful YA fiction recommended by an English teacher and fellow Shakespearean at my son’s grade school. Nat Field, who shares a name and penchant for acting with a famous player from Shakespeare’s London, mysteriously switches places with his Renaissance namesake and finds himself acting side-by-side with Will Shakespeare himself in 1599. A richly imagined piece of historical fiction– and one that name checks my friend Andy Gurr along the way!

25. Winslow, Don. The Force (William Morrow). Finished July 22.  

I bought this book because of an enthusiastic blurb by Stephen King and because I saw it on the table at Costco. This was an uncharacteristic move since I don’t read Stephen King all that often, but I enjoyed the book. There are skaz-like qualities to the third-person narration in a grim story about corrupt New York cops. “The skaz” is a lit-crit term that describes a narration that is so completely in a character’s voice and subjectivity that it is startling and original. The most famous example is Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. Imagine the Starz show Power from a corrupt cop’s point of view and then transform it into a novel, then you’ve got a good sense of The Force.

26. Lee, Sharon and Steve Miller. The Gathering Edge: A New Liaden Universe Novel (Baen). Finished July 30.

The latest in this sprawling series: a good “pop it into you mouth, chew and swallow” read. I will always have fond feelings for the Liaden universe because I read the first several with my baby daughter asleep with her head on my right shoulder while rocking gently in the glider in her sunny room in our old house in Encino. 

Unlike Bujold’s Vorkosigan books — where it is conceivable to jump into the series at any point because each novel is a self-contained unit — starting with the Liaden series at “The Gathering Edge” would be incomprehensible. I’ve read them all, and even I have trouble keeping track of the characters and the history, not in the least because the story has split into different concurrent narratives as well as leapt back and forth in time.

The current book is an entry in the story of Theo Waitley, the half-Liaden, half-Terran captain of a sentient ship called Bechimo. It’s a picaresque series of episodes that aren’t a single tale and don’t really add up to anything as a single book, but the episodes are interesting. The story starts with two Ytrang explorers popping into the universe from a previous, now-destroyed universe… a bit of back story that hasn’t ever really been developed in the series until now, unless it was in one of the side-stories that the authors self-publish. (It feels somewhat like Heinlein and Asimov each trying to reconcile all their different stories into one universe or multiverse late in their lives.)

27. Connelly, Michael. The Late Show: Introducing Detective Renée Ballard (Little, Brown). Finished July 31.

I inhaled this book in a single, albeit long, day, starting on a plane ride from Portland to New York and finishing in bed that night. Ballard is a terrific successor to Harry Bosch (whose adventures are not complete but seem to be winding down): she’s a smart, capable, passionate and reckless police detective. The story is a classic Connelly police procedural with a minor if very surprising twist at the end, and I wanted more Ballard the moment I was done. Ballard is pretty butch — female but not feminine — and I’ll be curious in future novels if Connelly explores her femininity at all.

28. Aaronovitch, Ben. The Furthest Station (Subterranean Press and self-published via Amazon and iBooks). Finished August 5.

Enjoyable novella in the “Rivers of London” aka “Peter Grant” series (see #8, above) that occupies my time whenever they come out. As with #8, the author presumes that only fans will read this book as he uses characters from previous entries with little or no explanation. Not a good jumping off point for new readers.

Two interesting things about The Furthest Station.

#1: Unlike some of the full-length books where Big Movie-Like Action Sequences tend to take up the last quarter, this one is a solid police procedural… an episode of Law & Magical Order. I think the author realized what he had midstream and decided to release it as a novella, which leads me to… 

#2: The business model. Aaronovitch released this as an expensive direct-to-fans hardback created by Subterranean Press some months ago, only allowing a cheaper digital version to come out over the last few weeks. His usual publisher, DAW, didn’t handle this one– either the hardback or the digital. The cover illustrator for the DAW-published volumes also drew the cover for this one (or another artist did a good facsimile). So the series exists outside a single publisher (there are also comic books, which I haven’t investigated.). This is also what Lois McMaster Bujold is doing with her Penric novellas, and it shows that there is market appetite for what Kevin Kelly once called “1000 True Fans” supporting an artist and making smaller endeavors profitable, although I suspect that these smaller projects are only possible when built on the platform of bigger, mass market releases. 

29. Chwe, Michael Suk-Young. Rational Ritual: Culture, Coordination & Common Knowledge (Princeton University Press). Finished August 6. 

I read the 2001 edition and then got the 2013 afterword via the USC library. Fascinating book that I’ll continue to think about and may need to buy. I first learned of this book in a Eugene Wei blog post, and subsequently quoted it in a column at the Center site.

Chwe’s central idea is that we need to share metaknowledge — we need not only to know something but also to know that other people know it, and that other people know we know it, and that they know that we know that they know it in infinite regression — in order to coordinate action. It’s helpful in understanding how Trump mobilized a base with blatant falsehoods that nonetheless became common “knowledge,” and it has helped me think through the sinister implications of the decline of shared reality because of new display technologies.

Most importantly, Chwe’s version of common knowledge helps to explain the timing of the #MeToo movement.

30. Bujold, Lois McMaster. Penric’s Fox (Penric & Desdemona) (Subterranean Press and self-published via Amazon and iBooks). Finished August 9.

See #9. Another delightful novella set in Bujold’s “Five Gods” universe.

31. Stephens-Davidowitz, Seth. Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell us About Who We Really Are (Dey Street Books). Finished August 14.

Really, really interesting. Stephens-Davidowitz is a former Google data scientist and researcher who explores what our search histories say about us in case study after fascinating case study, divvied up across different fields, demographics and gender. The book is well worth reading, although I sometimes found the author overconfident about his conclusions. There’s a difference (that the author doesn’t seem to recognize) between the things that we search for and the things that we want, between what we believe about ourselves and the beliefs that come into focus based on what we do online. Those things all overlap, but they aren’t identical.

32. Singer, P.W. and August Cole. Ghost Fleet: a Novel of the Next World War (Eamon Dolan/Mariner Books). Finished August 24.

Fascinating near-future military techno-thriller about a Chinese attack on the USA in order to secure massive oil reserve under the Pacific Ocean. The authors combine canny extrapolation about technology with a crowded cast of characters and a narrative that moves in rapid bursts where each chapter is just a handful of pages, the POV always shifting. If this hasn’t already been optioned for a movie or mini series, then Hollywood is missing out.

33. Doctorow, Cory. Walkaway: a Novel (Tor Books). Finished September 5.

I always like and rarely love Doctorow’s novels, and this one is no exception. The difficulty I face is that there are so many different stories trapped inside one book: it’s a book about post-automation economics and what happens when a world of easy plenty is in conflict with older notions of property; it’s a book about the singularity and what it means to upload your consciousness; it’s a book about gender identity and race. It’s a lot… and the parts don’t add up to anything more than the whole. I’m not sad that I read it, but nothing that changed my world view… which is what I want from science fiction.

34. Harari, Yuval Noah. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (Harper). Finished September 14.

Holy smokes did this take me a long time. It wasn’t in Kahneman territory, but SHEESH. I started reading the book on June 27, and over the course of the intervening months took several breaks.

On the other hand, I also took 21 pages of notes. It’s a fascinating and wide-ranging history of humanity from when homo sapiens first walked across the African planes to the arrival of money as a kind of operating system for cultures, and I’ll be thinking about it for a long time.

35. Stephenson, Neal and Nicole Galland. The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O., a Novel (William Morrow). Finished September 27.

Terrific, hard-to-describe, IMMENSE and often very funny 742-page science fiction, time travel story about an attempt to go back to the past in order to save magic from dying at the birth of the age of science.

36. Asaro, Catherine. The Bronze Skies (Skolian Empire Series Book 8) (Baen Books). Finished October 2.

An enjoyable new addition to Asaro’s long-running half romance/ half space opera, although set in the earlier half of the series. One interesting departure is that Asaro writes this (and its predecessor) in the first person rather than her usual third person “free indirect discourse.”

37. Hoffman, Bob. Bad Men: How Advertising Went from a Minor Annoyance to a Major Menace (Type A Group). Finished October 14.

A small but mighty 79-page polemic against ad:tech and everything that’s wrong with it, which is a considerable amount, particularly from the privacy point of view. I loved Hoffman’s other book, Marketers are from Mars; Consumers are from New Jersey, a year or two ago, and Bad Men is just as good. I read it having just come from the Data + Marketing Association’s annual conference — an organization that only merits one brief mention alongside repeated diatribes against the ANA, 4As and IAB — so the issues of data use and misuse by marketers was already very much on my mind. Hoffman’s clarity — remove tracking and most of the problems with ad:tech go away — is refreshing. 

38. Galloway, Scott. The Four: the Hidden DNA of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google (Portfolio). Finished October 20.

I’ve had the privilege of seeing Galloway interviewed at a conference and enjoy his appearances on the Re/Code podcast with Kara Swisher. He is always provocative, insightful and so very, very snarky. This book, his first, reads a lot like he sounds, which is both good and bad. On the good side, I breezed through the book, merrily underlining and making marginal comments. On the down side, I took not a page of notes, which is unusual for me. The book is heavier on snark than it is on research. Galloway trades on his status as a teacher at NYU, but the book is more of an immense blog post than a work with academic substance. The las chapter about entrepreneurship may be the most enduring, which isn’t a surprise since Galloway himself has been a successful serial entrepreneur.

39. Leckie, Ann. Provenance (Orbit). Finished October 25.

I ADORED Leckie’s “Ancillary” trilogy, so I was delighted to learn about this new novel set in a far-flung corner of the same fictional universe. While the trilogy was a trio of home runs, the new book is merely a base hit. Solid space opera with thoughtful and coherent world building and engaging characters, the weakness was in the anemic plot.

40. Bujold, Lois McMaster. The Prisoner of Lemnos: a Penric and Desdemona Story (Subterranean Press and self-published via Amazon and iBooks). Finished October 29.

One definition of happiness is the release of anything new by Bujold. Although her novels come achingly slow, she has been exploding with Penric and Desdemona novellas (#9, #30) for the last couple of years, to my intense delight.

As with Ben Aaronovitch’s last piece (#28), an interesting feature of the Penric novellas is the business model. I paid $3.99 last night to buy this on iBooks — or to buy a license for it since it’s an ebook — and I presume that 70% of that money went to Bujold, or roughly $2.80 after Apple’s 30% commission. If she sells ten thousand of these, then that’s $28K. At forty thousand that’s $112K. Given her celebrity, I’m guessing it’s closer to forty thousand. And she’s also selling premium printed editions for those diehard fans. This is a nice piece of income, particularly if she can do it multiple times per year.

However, I suspect this is an at-best secondary revenue stream that is parasitic on the larger reputation from her sold-in-bookstore novels in the various series? In other words, this sort of author/reader DTC model is the happy result of salience in the marketplace but it does not in and of itself create or amplify that salience. At least that is my guess.

41. Connelly, Michael. Two Kinds of Truth: a Bosch Novel (Little, Brown). Finished November 3.

Much as I loved Connelly’s last novel, with the new Renee Ballard character, I don’t think I’ll ever get enough of his Harry Bosch stories. Unlike Sherlock Holmes or many other detectives, Bosch has aged over the years and over the novels, now in his late 60s or early 70s, forcibly retired from the LAPD but still working as a detective on a volunteer basis for the San Fernando PD. The cast of secondary characters remains vibrant, and also filled with ongoing tension. The relationship between Bosch and Mickey Heller, his half brother and star of the “Lincoln Lawyer” novels, is convincingly fraternal, with affection, respect and conflict. As usual, I inhaled this book over the course of two or three days. 

42. Olson, Erika S. Zero-Sum Game: the Rise of the World’s Largest Derivatives Exchange (Wiley). Finished November 20.

I don’t understand futures or derivatives as well as I’d like to, and the rise of exchanges for bitcoin at the CME Group and its competitors brought my lack of understanding into focus. Olson’s book is a memoir about how the Chicago Mercantile Exchange acquired the Chicago Board of Trade in 2007, with a helpful introduction to how these exchanges function built into the narrative.

43. Newitz, Annalee. Autonomous: a Novel (Tor Books). Finished November 25, 2017.

This just-released and consistently interesting near-future dystopian science fiction novel is set about 120 years in the future at the intersection of robotics, AI and biotech. Newitz, the author (with whom I went to grad school many years ago) has created an intriguing world that combines golden age science fiction tropes about robots (think Asimov’s I, Robot) and self awareness with more recent cyberpunk (Neal Stephenson’s Snowcrash) and biotech fiction (the recent Daniel Suarez book Change Agent #20). 

Newitz creates a deep, fully-realized world where robots are self-aware but only some are autonomous. In a disturbing parallel, while most humans are enfranchised many are indentured servants. The technology pervades the story at a kind of fractal level, with bioluminescent and self-healing wall paint scaling up to robots who switch bodies over the course of their lives and humans who mod their own bodies in ways ranging from subtle to grotesque. Throughout, Big Pharma with its expensive, copyrighted drugs is in tension with the work of Free Labs that gives drugs away. 

Judith “Jack” Chen, one of several protagonists, is a pharma pirate who steals drugs from Big Pharma, reverse engineers them and then releases them on the black market. Other protagonists include Paladin, a self-aware “biobot” with an auxiliary human brain, and Medea “Med” Cohen, a robot scientist who was created to be autonomous and grew up nurtured by a human family. 

The plot is spritely — I read the book cover to cover in a day and a half — with engaging characters and a consistently compelling world. The plot Maguffin wasn’t a big surprise, but it was nonetheless satisfying.

This is a strong recommend for science fiction lovers, particularly fans of Stephenson, Cory Doctorow, and William Gibson, all of whom contributed enthusiastic blurbs to Autonomous.

44. Eastland, Sam. Eye of the Red Tsar: a Novel of Suspense (Bantam). Finished November 30.

See #49.

45. Alter, Adam. Irresistible: the rise of additive technology and the business of keeping us hooked (Penguin Press). Finished December 7.

Back in the 1980s the pro-gun lobby’s slogan was “guns don’t kill people: people kill people,” arguing that guns are neutral tools. I wasn’t sympathetic to that argument at the time because it’s easier to kill another person if you happen to have a custom-built tool for that purpose ready to hand.

Along those lines, Alter’s book usefully argues that the technologies we rely on to run our lives — particularly smart phones and social media — are not neutral tools but deliberately-engineered addictions. The book is a three-part endeavor: first, Alter explores and explains the nature of addiction generally; then, he makes the compelling case that many forms of technology qualify as addiction, and finally he articulates a number of ways his readers can both break the tech addictions and also avoid getting hooked in the first place. 

A handy, convincing and pretty-darned scary book.

46. Weir, Andy. Artemis: a Novel (Crown). Finished December 15.

Despite the advice of several friends I could never bring myself to read Weir’s celebrated first novel The Martian (nor see the Matt Damon film) because I found the idea so disturbing– a novel-length version of the classic Poe story “The Premature Burial.” Ack!

Weir’s new book, Artemis, is a delightful hard science fiction romp where Jazz, a smuggler of whom Han Solo would be proud, gets involved in a complex caper on Earth’s fully-colonized, multicultural moon. Complex characterization meets intricately thought out tech and culture in a very near future.

47. Trillin, Calvin. Alice, Let’s Eat: Further Adventures of a Happy Eater (Random House). Finished December 15.

I’ve been aware of Trillin as a writer for many years but never took the time to wade into his delicious prose until David Brooks — a writer I enjoy but with whom I rarely agree — mentioned Trillin’s books about eating in a recent New York Times piece where columnists recommend books to each other. “This strikes me as the perfect season to go back and read some of Calvin Trillin’s hilarious food books. They remind one, in these shadowy times, that the world can be savory and amusing, and still worth rising out of bed for.”

I found Alice, Let’s Eat in my local library and proceeded to irritate my family with non-stop chuckles, giggles and the occasional guffaw. Trillin’s pose as an enthusiastic glutton pitted against the sensible caution — and desire to see parts of the world besides restaurants in their travels — of his wife Alice is an inexhaustible narrative device. A glum mood evaporated once I opened the book, and I now have Quite Enough of Calvin Trillin: forty years of funny stuff on my desk to be savored as one of my first books in 2018.

48. Eastland, Sam. Shadow Pass: a Novel of Suspense (Bantam). Finished December 20.

See #49.

49. Eastland, Sam. Archive 17: a Novel of Suspense (Bantam). Finished December 26.

Having read the first three of Eastman’s Pekkala novels in less than a month — the third in less than a day — I’m of two minds. 

On one hand, the books are fast-paced and easily inhaled; the early Soviet setting with flashbacks to the end of the Tsarist regime are powerfully researched, and Pekkala, the Finnish protagonist who is the most-feared detective in the Soviet Union has an uncanny, Holmes-like quality that is compelling. 

On the other hand, the Holmes comparison does have drawbacks. Pekkala in the third book seems to have sedimented into a series of narrative gestures. Like Holmes, Pekkala does not possess much in the way of interiority, not a lot of subjective experience. The mission to serve justice is all that is there. In this third book, Pekkala realizes that he was betrayed by his old master the Tsar in the latter days before the Russian Revolution, but that betrayal has no impact on the plot nor on the character’s ways of thinking at the end of the story. I’m therefore becoming less interested in Pekkala because I don’t think I’ll ever get his story, even though he is vexed by the loss of his one true love, Ilya, and feels guilty about not showing his affection for his faithful, Watson-like assistant, Kirov. Recommended by Peter Horan.

50. Mehta, Kumar. The Innovation Biome: a Sustained Business Environment Where Innovation Thrives (River Grove Books). Finished December 28.

If you are lucky enough to have a local bookstore in which to throw rocks, then you can’t throw a rock in a bookstore without it caroming off at least two books about innovation in business. My library at home is full of them, some of which are useful and some of which disappoint.  Professionally, I’ve also participated in innovation workshops, mentored at startup incubators affiliated with brands like Pepsi and Nike, and helped to produce entire events devoted to innovation. So I have some expertise within which to evaluate innovation thinking.

What sets Kumar Mehta’s book apart from most innovation treatises is its practicality and applicability. Mehta usefully identifies different levels and styles of corporate endeavor and how those do and do not match different forms of innovation. He also maps out how to avoid GMOOT (“Get Me One Of Those!”) and other shiny object digressions in favor of creating manageable and measurable “biomes” or environments where innovation can thrive. He also provides clearsighted ways to approach innovation, what to avoid, and how to evaluate what you’ve got once you get it. 

Most books like these are covert brochures for consultancies where key parts of the described process are left out because the desired result of anybody reading the book is for the reader to hire the consultant. While I certainly foresee businesses engaging Mehta for help understanding and nurturing their own innovation biomes as an accelerant, everything a reader needs to know to make productive use of Mehta’s ideas is right there in the book. This is rare.

And that’s the 50.

What this list doesn’t reflect are re-reads — often late night visits with old friends — or partial reads, nor does it show the disapproving stacks and shelves of books that I haven’t yet managed to finish.

But there’s always 2018.

Brief review of “Autonomous” by Annalee Newitz

Annalee Newitz’s Autonomous is a just-released and consistently interesting near-future dystopian science fiction novel set about 120 years in the future at the intersection of robotics, AI and biotech.

Newitz, the author (with whom I went to grad school many years ago), has created an intriguing world that combines golden age science fiction tropes about robots (think Asimov’s “I, Robot”) and self awareness with more recent cyberpunk (Neal Stephenson’s “Snowcrash”) and biotech fiction (the recent Daniel Suarez book “Change Agent”).

Newitz creates a deep, fully-realized world where robots are self-aware but only some are autonomous. In a disturbing parallel, while most humans are enfranchised many are indentured servants. The technology pervades the story at a kind of fractal level, with bioluminescent and self-healing wall paint scaling up to robots who switch bodies over the course of their lives and humans who mod their own bodies in ways ranging from subtle to grotesque. Throughout, Big Pharma with its expensive, copyrighted drugs is in tension with the work of Free Labs that give drugs away.

Judith “Jack” Chen, one of several protagonists, is a pharma pirate who steals drugs from Big Pharma, reverse engineers them and then releases them on the black market. Other protagonists include Paladin, a self-aware “biobot” with an auxiliary human brain, and Medea “Med” Cohen, a robot scientist who was created to be autonomous and grew up nurtured by a human family.

The plot is spritely — I read the book cover to cover in a day and a half — with engaging characters and a consistently compelling world. The plot McGuffin wasn’t a big surprise, but it was still satisfying.

This is a strong recommend for science fiction lovers, particularly fans of Stephenson, Cory Doctorow, and William Gibson, all of whom contributed enthusiastic blurbs to Autonomous.

From the archives: the Amazon Tip Jar

My Amazon obsession is longstanding, as evidenced by this piece from way back that I stumbled across today. The date was October 6, 2009, and the original title was “Open Letter to Jeff Bezos: Please Create an Amazon.com Tip Jar.” If you want to see the original context and comments you can find it here via the Internet Wayback Machine. By the way, Amazon never responded to this idea.

Dear Jeff,

I’m a fan, a BIG fan, both of you and of Amazon.com. Want specifics? I got the very first Kindle and later the Kindle Dx. Love ‘em, and sometimes buy the same book in digital AND hardcover formats… both from Amazon. I’m a Prime member and think it’s the best $79.00 I spend each year. I prefer to buy mp3s via Amazon over iTunes, bought-and-downloaded the entire second season of Mad Men through your Unbox interface to watch on plane rides. I could go on, but I won’t, because I want to get to the point of this letter quickly.

Jeff, I’m begging you to create an Amazon Tip Jar that happy Amazon customers like me can use to reward the independent bookstores that Amazon is, quite simply and inarguably, killing dead dead dead. “Tip,” here means both the “ooooh, thanks for the recommendation” sort of tip and also the “here’s a few bucks for good service” tip. Your doing this will be good for the Amazon brand, good for the world, the right thing to do, and technologically easy– combining your existing Associates program and Gift Card program.

Why should you do this? Here’s one story that, I hope, will make my point.

My guilty moment
About a year ago I was chatting with the proprietors at The Mystery Bookstore in Westwood, California (wonderful place: you ought to visit, here’s a map), where over the years I’ve happily spent a lot of money and, more importantly, received a ton of high-quality, personalized book recommendations that trump the “Frequently Bought Together” and “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought” advice from your ecommerce algorithms.

On this fateful day, the nice lady at the register suggested Gregg Hurwitz’s terrific mystery “The Crime Writer” and made it sound fascinating (it is!).

I could have spend $14.00 plus tax right there in the store, but instead I covertly checked my Kindle, found it and later bought it on that platform for $9.99. Why? My Kindle was relatively new, and I wanted to see if I could fall into a mystery on that platform (yup, sure could).

But man, I felt guilty. Later, after I finished The Crime Writer, I wanted to give the folks at The Mystery Bookstore a reward, a bounty, if you will, for such a great recommendation. I wanted to hand them $5 — yes, the book is THAT good — but I didn’t, in part because I couldn’t face the perp walk of shame to the register to confess that I took their recommendation and bought it for the Kindle, and in part because I couldn’t imagine what they would DO with five bucks. There’s no “random money” entry in most cash registers, and many people would simply pocket the money rather than have to figure out what to do with it.

Jeff, help me assuage my guilt! 
You can solve this problem: with an Amazon Tip Jar I could decide to reward The Mystery Bookstore later by sending them a thank you tip for the Hurwitz tip. All I’d need to do is click on the “Send a Tip!” link at Amazon.com, enter the email address or physical address of the tip-receiver, choose my dollar amount, and then go through the usual, expedient Amazon buying process.

This would be entirely voluntary for the customer — which means it might fail — but tipping at restaurants is voluntary and most of us do it.

If I browse a copy of Michael J. Mauboussin’s “Think Twice: Harnessing the Power of Counterintuition” (it’s on my Amazon wish list) at the local independent bookstore and later choose to save $10.18 by buying it through Amazon, I could send $1.99 — the cost of an episode of most TV shows at Amazon or iTunes — as a tip to the local shop… that means I still save $8.19, which is a lot.

Think of the positive brand exposure for Amazon! You could even make actual little glass jars that a store could have next to the register with signs that read, “Tip Jar: See something here that you’re gonna buy from Amazon? Tips appreciated!” and have the store’s email address on the jar. And it doesn’t need to be limited to bookstores (although that’s what started me down this chain of thought): if a blogger represents a book, I could say thank you. If a speaker at a conference mentions a book and I buy it, I could say thank you.

Nobody would respect a $1.99 gift certificate, but a tip? Who wouldn’t smile at that and think, “gosh, that’s nice… thanks!”

Amazon is the undisputed king of ecommerce, the cradle of the long tail, the enabler of authors to get their books in front of people in a hurry, but what Amazon doesn’t do well is have a real-time conversation… the one when how the customer’s eyes light up while she talks about one book sparks another title in the mind of the merchant. Independent bookstore owners do that very  well. You can help keep them around.

Please think about it.

Sincerely from a fan and loyal Amazon customer,

Brad Berens

Delight and paradox in Jeff Rosenblum’s book ‘Friction’

I’m delighted to share my first byline with The Drum, which is a review of “Friction” by my friends Jeff Rosenblum and Jordan Berg.

Here are the first few paragraphs:

Reading most business books is like watching the movie Groundhog Day, just without the funny bits. Such books bludgeon their readers with a single idea over many chapters. Sometimes it’s not a very good idea, and there’s no escape!

After a while I get: the premise, bored and out.

This is why I’ve concluded that most business books are really just HBR articles suffering from elephantiasis. (Google it.)

In contrast, one of the many things that make Jeff Rosenblum’s new book Friction: Passion Brands in the Age of Disruption — written with his friend and business partner Jordan Berg — an insightful pleasure to read is that the book gets more interesting the more you read.

Full disclosure before I forget: Jeff and Jordan are my personal friends and professional allies. I’ve known them for years, and I’ve been pleased to watch Questus, their agency, evolve from a scappy little shop into an award-winning creative powerhouse. Jeff and I talked about the masochistic pain of writing as he was using mental forceps to pull this book out of his brain. So I was already a Questus fan even before they sent me a copy of Friction.

After reading the book you’ll be a fan too.

Read the rest of the review on The Drum.

Then go buy the book on Amazon.

My 2016 in Books

This is the third year that I’ve kept a running list of every book that I’ve completed for the first time and then shared that list here as the first thing I write on either the last day of the old year or the first of the new.

You can see the 2015 list here and the 2014 list here, and as always I want to thank my friend David Daniel for the inspiration to do this.

A lot of folks in my line of work spend the waning moments of one year gazing out with predictions about the months ahead, and I’ll be doing plenty of that soon — most publicly at CES where I’ll be leading tours next week. However, I’m not only a futurist, I’m also a historian — a “futuristorian” — and so I look back as well as forward.

Looking back on what I read and when I read it helps me to track each year’s intellectual journey similar to how looking back at old emails or social media posts or journal entries can help me to pinpoint what I was thinking, when and often where.  This year, one change from previous years is that I read more physical books than e-books.

So much of the recent news and social media torrent has been about how 2016 was a crappy year (John Oliver did a great job starting this meme).  I prefer to think of it as a profound challenge, and amidst the challenges I read many wonderful books that I’m pleased to share.  One new feature: at the end I’ll list a few of the books I have on deck for the first part of 2017.

For folks who just want the list without the thoughts after reading, here’s the short version:

  1. Polanyi, Michael. The Tacit Dimension.  
  2. Bach, Rachel. Honor’s Knight. 
  3. Edgerton, David. The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History Since 1900.
  4. Bujold, Lois McMaster. Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen (Vorkosigan series).  
  5. Grant, Adam. Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World. 
  6. Bear, Elizabeth. Karen Memory.  
  7. Dunstall, S.K. Alliance: A Linesman Novel.
  8. Nisbett, Richard E. Mindware: Tools for Smart Thinking.
  9. Rushkoff, Douglas. Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus: How Growth Became the Enemy of Prosperity.
  10. Connelly, Michael. Echo Park: A Harry Bosch Novel. 
  11. Connelly, Michael. The Crossing: a Bosch Novel.
  12. Sacks, Oliver. Gratitude.  
  13. Thaler, Richard H. & Cass R. Sunstein. Nudge: Improving Decisions About Heath, Wealth, and Happiness. (Revised & Expanded Edition.) 
  14. Case, Steve. The Third Wave: an Entrepreneur’s Vision of the Future.
  15. Wallace, David Foster. This is Water; Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life. 
  16. Bujold, Lois McMaster. Penric & the Shaman.
  17. Sennett, Richard. The Craftsman. 
  18. Riordan, Rick. Blood of Olympus.
  19. Levitin, Daniel J. The Organized Mind. 
  20. Lee, Sharon & Steve Miller. Alliance of Equals (Liaden Universe.) 
  21. Riordan, Rick. The Trials of Apollo: Book One, The Hidden Oracle.
  22. Vance, J.D. Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis.  
  23. Shafer, David. Whiskey, Tango, Foxtrot: A Novel.
  24. Chiang, Ted. Stories of Your Life and Others.
  25. Bujold, Lois McMaster. Penric’s Mission. 
  26. Connelly, Michael. The Wrong Side of Goodbye: a Bosch Novel.
  27. Schwab, Klaus. The Fourth Industrial Revolution.
  28. Krasny, Michael. Let There be Laughter: A Treasury of Great Jewish Humor and What it all Means. More Than 100 of the Funniest Jewish of all Time.  
  29. Levitin, Daniel J. A Field Guide to Lies: Critical Thinking in the Information Age.
  30. Lewis, Michael. The Undoing Project: a Friendship that Changed Our Minds.
  31. Sawyer, Robert J. Hominids: Volume One of The Neanderthal Parallax.
  32. Gibbs, Stuart. Spy Ski School. 
  33. Perzanowski, Aaron and Jason Schultz. The End of Ownership: Personal Property in the Digital Economy

I read fewer books in 2016 than the whopping 56 of 2015, and less fiction than usual, which shows how busy my head has been with work and other matters.

Here’s the longer version with thoughts, occasional snarky remarks and analysis:

1.  Polanyi, Michael.  The Tacit Dimension.  Finished January 1, 2016.

Polanyi was a mid-twentieth century polymath, and this brief 1966 book came out of a series of lectures at Yale in 1962. The most useful for folks in 2017 are the first two.

In “Tacit Knowing,” Polanyi talks about how we can know more than we can say, and discusses a number of psychological experiments where subjects use information that they understand tacitly but cannot explain explicitly when asked to do so.  

Tacit Knowledge is an important idea for our digital era where more and more things can be tagged, identified, tracked and known. We have ever more that we can say but not necessarily an equally speedy increase in what we can know… and vice versa.

in the second Terry lecture, “Emergence,” Polanyi extends the concept of the leap to show how concepts emerge out of hierarchies, where the emerged form cannot be anticipated from the lower form, as a set of grammatical rules cannot anticipate poetry. In this thinking, Polanyi anticipates by decades recent discussions about moving up and down technological stacks and how innovation builds on platforms.

2. Bach, Rachel.  Honor’s Knight Finished January 3, 2016.

Sequel to Fortune’s Pawn, which I read in 2014.  This would be entirely conventional space opera if the protagonist were male, but because Deviana “Devi” Morris is a woman, it’s more interesting.  Like many trilogies (e.g. “Empire Strikes Back”) this one is pure action and stops right in the middle, tantalizing the reader to go read the 3rd, which I might do if it’s in my local library, as this one was.

3. Edgerton, David.  The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History Since 1900.  Finished January 25, 2016.  (While on a plane to a conference in Cincinnati.)

This fascinating book challenges innovation-centric thinking by exploring the impact of technologies in use rather than when new devices and services first come over the horizon.  “Our technological museums, with their emphasis on first design, tied to miss out on the extraordinary life stories of the objets they have” (38).

Edgerton focuses on maintenance as well as invention, highlighting how our attitudes toward technology today differ from prior eras: “In the 1920s a Ford Model T buyer ‘never regarded his purchase as a complete finished product. When you bought a Ford you figured you had a start — a vibrant, spirited framework to which could be screwed on almost limitless assortment of decorative and functional hardware’” (97). This is both similar to and different than today’s smart phones with limitless apps and customization opportunities, but few people get under the hoods of their phones and computers. In this, Edgerton’s argument reminds me of Jonathan Zittrain’s arguments about generativity in The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It.

4. Bujold, Lois McMaster. Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen (Vorkosigan series). Finished February 3, 2016.  

Anything by Bujold is a cause for celebration, and a new entry in the Vorkosigan series can provoke a Snoopy-like happy dance. Bujold is my favorite living science fiction writer, and this series is magnificent and sublime. No spoilers: ping me if you want a hint about where to jump onto this terrific ride.

5.  Grant, Adam. Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World.  Finished 2/19/16.

I loved Grant’s first book, Give and Take, and so I snapped this one up the moment I saw it.  Like the first book, Grant is a stellar writer who could have a second life writing fiction. In Originals, his insights about how things as seemingly-trivial as birth order determine choices, risk aversion and achievements later in life can cut to the bone in a spooky way. This book combines canny analysis with practical, applicable ideas: I wish it had a companion volume or app that would make some of the thinking more easily deployable… something I also think about books #8 and #29.

6. Bear, Elizabeth. Karen Memory.  Finished 3/5/16.

Pacific Northwest Steampunk.  This was genuinely interesting sci-fi that left me wanting to read more by Bear, and I hope for more from the protagonist, a prostitute with an appetite for adventure in an alternate-universe Seattle.

7. Dunstall, S.K. Alliance: A Linesman Novel. Finished March 25, 2016.

This is the second book in the Linesman series: not as good as the first because it was quieter after the sprezzatura world-building of #1.  I remembered the first well but not perfectly, which inhibited my pleasure a bit while reading the second. I look forward to reading #3, which came out when I wasn’t looking in November.

8. Nisbett, Richard E. Mindware: Tools for Smart Thinking. Finished March 26, 2016.

Brilliant and useful and worth a second read as it ties into a bunch of other reading and thinking over the past couple of years.  Many psychologists perform experiments about how flawed we are as thinkers, how irrelevant facets of a story can influence our decisions, and how bad we are at making the distinction between something that is plausible (a good story) and probably (likely).  Nisbett’s “mindware” are rules and tools to help us think more effectively, or at least be aware of biases as we muddle through our lives.

9. Rushkoff, Douglas. Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus: How Growth Became the Enemy of Prosperity. Finished April 8, 2016.

Fascinating and important: Doug Rushkoff is one of those courageous thinkers who tackles foundational presumptions to shake our thinking into new shapes.  The foundational idea that he tackles at the core of Throwing Rocks is that corporations need to grow in order to survive. This hasn’t always been the case (nor have corporations), and the practical consequences of adopting grow-or-die as the operating system for companies is that individual liberty and prosperity becomes subservient to the health of corporations.

Speaking of companies like Uber, AirBNB, Spotify and others, Rushkoff observers “As private companies induce us to become sharers, we contribute our own cars, creativity, and couches to a sharing economy that is more extractive than it is circulatory. Our investments of time, place, and materials are exploited by those who have invested money and actually own the platforms” (218). You won’t think about Uber and the like in the same way after reading this book.

10. Connelly, Michael.  Echo Park: A Harry Bosch Novel Finished April 16, 2016.

Devoured in less than 24 hours, on a quick trip to L.A. to give a dinner keynote. This is the 12th Harry Bosch novel, published in 2006.  I haven’t been a completionist with this series, and the last one I read was The Burning Room at the end of 2014.  That leaves me with The Crossing as the most-recently published that I haven’t read…

11. Connelly, Michael. The Crossing: a Bosch Novel. Finished April 21, 2016.

The Harry Bosch novel published in November of 2016, which I got out of the library Tuesday afternoon and inhaled. This one also features Mickey Haller from the Lincoln Lawyer series, although we see the story from Bosch’s POV.  Connelly is amazing with both character and plot, hence the momentum. He’s also daring with having his main character change over time (like Lois McMaster Bujold with Miles Vorkosigan). Unlike Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, who is a bag of tics and a narrative function, Bosch changes over time. In this book, Bosch is facing his life after a second retirement from the LAPD and what to do with himself (also as an about-to-be empty nester). 

Reading these two Bosch books back to back also inspired me to watch the terrific Amazon Prime TV adaptation, Bosch.

12. Sacks, Oliver. Gratitude.  Finished 17 May, 2016.  

A little book with big ideas and emotions: it collects Sacks’ last four essays, originally published in The New York Times, written between the time he got his terminal cancer diagnosis and his death.  He was such a beautiful writer, and I’m pleased that my wife Kathi gave me this inspiring little collection for the 2015 holidays.

13. Thaler, Richard H. & Cass R. Sunstein. Nudge: Improving Decisions About Heath, Wealth, and Happiness. (Revised and Expanded Edition.) Finished May 22, 2016.

I’ve been meaning to read this book for years, and that ambition was heightened when I read Thaler’s Misbehaving memoir last year.  A brilliant book about the social context of and need for deep thinking about default assumptions for all manner of situations, as well as how to change them via gentle “nudges” rather than strong mandates. The seeming paradox of “libertarian paternalism” takes an entire book to unwind, and although sometimes it is hard going the read repays the effort.  The authors’ notion of “choice architecture” is profoundly useful, and I’ll be thinking about it a lot… in particular in the context of the connected experiences at the heart of my current work.

14. Case, Steve. The Third Wave: an Entrepreneur’s Vision of the Future. Finished 31 May, 2016.

This book was frustrating to read but has stuck with me in the months since I finished it.

Here’s a transcription of a notecard I scribbled on 5/26/16: “Generally book is platitudinous —> a good keyword to describe most biz books. Not enough concrete examples when he talks about the future, although plenty of the war stories.”

The word “platitudinous” is one happy result of a so-so book. Case’s Third Wave is a powerpoint with elephantiasis— the reverse of Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” that was a book masquerading as an endless powerpoint presentation. 

The other happy result of reading Case is my idea that most business books are Thneeds, from Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax… an idea that probably needs no teasing out. In Case’s case (ha), the “thneed” is the concept of “the third wave” itself, borrowed from Toffler and transmogrified into IoT.  

Two of Case’s most-useful insights are 1) that the need for infrastructure makes the third wave more similar to the internet’s first wave than to the social/mobile second wave, and 2) that third wave companies will need to partner more effectively with governments in order to succeed… unlike, say, Uber which has grown by ignoring government regulations until they get in trouble.

15. Wallace, David Foster. This is Water; Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life. Finished 31 May, 2016.

An exquisite little book, which is the slightly revised text of DFW’s famous 2005 Kenyon College commencement address. I think I read the text online once before, and/or heard the audio, but I’ve been thinking about this talk lately and ordered the hard copy on Amazon in order to get it into my head more actively.  The highest compliment that I can give this book is that I’ll have to read it again soon in order to make sure that I’m paying attention to what it asks me to attend to.  

The reason I’ve been thinking about This is Water is that the thread of some other books I’ve been consuming have been more complicated versions of this, like Douglas Rushkoff’s operating systems in Throwing Rocks.

16.  Bujold, Lois McMaster. Penric & the ShamanFinished June 28, 2016.

A brilliant novella in Bujold’s “Five Gods” universe that I bought, downloaded and inhaled in one day despite my hopes of stretching out the experience. This is fantasy rather than science fiction and the sequel to last year’s Penric’s Demon.

17.  Sennett, Richard. The Craftsman. Finished July 2, 2016.

I picked this up after my friend John Willshire talked eloquently about Sennet’s work in a presentation I admired. I couldn’t get through it the first time I tried, but the second time I got hooked and wound up filling 18 notecards with enthusiastic observations and filling the book with marginalia and underlines.  

Sennett is brilliant and insightful, and his work resonates with my thinking about connected experiences, and particularly how using tools expands both our capabilities and our individual senses, leading us into new thinking: “We want to understand how tools can more generically engage us in large intuitive leaps into the unknown” (209),

18. Riordan, Rick. Blood of Olympus. Finished July 26, 2016.

This is the final book in the second Percy Jackson series, which I read because my son wanted me to do so. Although Riordan is always good, the second series was not nearly as good as the first: there are too many characters with a dizzying, constantly-switching POV.

19. Levitin, Daniel J. The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information OverloadFinished July 26, 2016.

This is a rare exception to my “first reads only” rule, but over the summer I realized that I hadn’t retained as much of this brilliant book the first time I read it last year… perhaps because I read it on the iPad. So I bought a paperback copy and dove back in, pencil in hand and a pile of notecards on the table beside me. The book rewarded a second read just as much as a first, which is rare.

The next phase of the digital revolution is going to put immense pressure on our notions of environments, place, transcending the limits of our bodies and more: Levitin’s book has informed my thinking about these matters. Moreover, his insights about how we all have a limited amount of decision-making energy each day have changed how I approach allowing many forms of stimulation into my life, particularly in the mornings.

20. Lee, Sharon & Steve Miller. Alliance of Equals. (Liaden Universe.) Finished August 14, 2016.

The latest in the Liaden series. I had to reread the prior (Dragon in Exile), as I didn’t remember it well.  As with the last Percy Jackson book, this suffers from an oversupply of plots & POVs and characters, but at least in this case the three main plots all share a theme of transition, becoming and arrival.

21. Riordan, Rick. The Trials of Apollo: Book One, The Hidden Oracle. Finished August 22, 2016.

This is the first book in the next series in Riordan’s Greek myth universe, and the difference between Riordan writing multiple points of view and containing himself to one is profound. Here, Apollo annoys Zeus to such an extent that the Thunder God banishes Apollo to live as a mortal on Earth. The fun of the book is that Apollo is an arrogant prick, which isn’t a huge surprise after being worshipped as a deity for millennia. The narrative engine is virtually identical to that of the 1960s Marvel comic adaptation of Thor, only played for laughs.

22.  Vance, J.D. Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis.  Finished September 6, 2016.

This book has been a sensation, particularly around the vexing question of why middle class whites voted Republican in such overwhelming numbers in the last election despite it seeming to Democrats to be an act entirely against the self interest of those same voters.

I want to point out just two things: first, Vance never mentions President-Elect Trump by name or by direct inference, so the application to the election is more interpretive than some reviewers suggest. Second, the political application of this story is a distraction from a terrific read and a modern memoir of class that reminds me of classics like Manchild in the Promised Land by Claude Brown and Hunger of Memory by Richard Rodriguez.

23.  Shafer, David. Whiskey, Tango, Foxtrot: A Novel. Finished October 30, 2016.

My friend Ari Popper recommended this agreeable novel, which is not to be confused with the similarly-titled book that was the source for the Tina Fey movie.

Shafer’s book has a weird “this is the overture: where’s the symphony?” quality. It almost feels like a prequel written long after a novel — the start of a beloved multi-volume action series — that exists to explain to loyal readers where the protagonists originally came from… sort of like if J.K, Rowling wrote the James and Lily Potter story, where the whole point of those two characters was to get killed by Voldemort in a way that empowered Harry.  

There was an interesting container versus the content aspect to this for me: the story kept getting more compelling but I noticed (because I have a paper copy rather than on the iPad) that even though the plot was ramping up I was running out of pages. “How can he resolve all this in the short amount of time he has left?” I think that if I’d been whizzing along reading it on the iPad — and didn’t look at the “you have read X% banner on the bottom — that I’d have felt quite cheated when I slammed into that ending.  I remember this sort of thing happening to me with an Elmore Leonard novel that was one of the first things I ever read on a Kindle where the story ended abruptly even though I had a bunch of % left to read, which was because there was a free preview of another novel. At least with the Shafer book I could see it coming.

24. Chiang, Ted. Stories of Your Life and Others. Finished November 5, 2016.

There aren’t that many people who make me think, “Gosh, why don’t they write MORE?” Chiang’s astonishing collection of sci-fi short stories did just that, and I’m grateful to my friend Mike Parker for recommending the book.

The title story has now been turned into the film Arrival, which I want to see it based on the source material.  The most personally compelling story to me was “Liking What You See: A Documentary” about lookism.

25. Bujold, Lois McMaster. Penric’s Mission. Finished November 12, 2016.

Third novella in Bujold’s newest fantasy series (see #16, above), delightful.

26. Connelly, Michael. The Wrong Side of Goodbye: a Bosch Novel. Finished November 13, 2016.

More Connelly: he’s just so good.  I started the iBooks sample on the elliptical machine at the gym, went home, bought it, and then inhaled most of it that same night, finishing it the following morning. Any mystery lover shouldn’t miss these.

27.  Schwab, Klaus. The Fourth Industrial Revolution. Finished November 16, 2016.

At a conference this fall my friend Tim Murphy recommended this book.  It’s an interesting and mercifully brief “behold the future!” volume written book by the founder and head of the World Economic Forum: it provoked a long set of index card notes.

The book can be frustrating with its dearth of evocative examples, which makes imaginatively seeing what Schwab is talking about hard, but reading it catalyzed a great deal of my own thinking, and perhaps led indirectly to this recent piece.

28. Krasny, Michael. Let There be Laughter: A Treasury of Great Jewish Humor and What it all Means. More Than 100 of the Funniest Jewish Jokes of all Time.  Finished November 26, 2016.

This is a breezy read by the host of KQED’s “Forum.” In an ungenerous mood I told my parents — who lent me the book — that the commentary is so shallow that it aspires to be fatuous, which was unfair but only a little. Krasny spends so much time on self-aggrandizing anecdotes about the celebrities he knows and has interviewed that it can be annoying.  

But he does have some good jokes.

I’ve long bemoaned that 1980 and 1990s identity politics and political correctness essentially killed joke-telling as a social lubricant. For my father and grandfather jokes were the professional currency. I can only think of three friends and colleagues with whom I trade jokes, and I’m sufficiently antsy about this topic that I won’t name them. You know you are, guys.

29.  Levitin, Daniel J. A Field Guide to Lies: Critical Thinking in the Information Age. Finished November 29, 2016.  

A fantastic read, one that inspired many, many notecards. More practical than his previous, brilliant book The Organized Mind (#19) and akin to Nisbett’s Mindware (#8), Levitin provides the reader with tools to evaluate information critically, not to be taken in by poor arguments, and to understand that “we didn’t evolve brains with a sufficient understanding of what randomness looks like” (163). This is a friendlier, more useful version of the work of Nassim Nicholas Taleb of Black Swan fame.

Reading books like Levitin’s can make me despair of ever thinking clearly myself, but I can at least take comfort in always making progress.

30. Lewis, Michael. The Undoing Project: a Friendship that Changed Our Minds. Finished December 10, 2016.

Magnificent. As with the Vance book (#22), this is a huge bestseller so I don’t know how much I can add. I’ve read the works of its main protagonists — Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky — and other behavioral economists with fascination for years. What Lewis does is to make their ideas come alive in a powerful platonic love story between two geniuses.

You can watch a long, insightful conversation between Lewis and Adam Grant (a.k.a. #5) here.

31. Sawyer, Robert J. Hominids: Volume One of The Neanderthal Parallax. Finished December 15, 2016.

Delightful, thoughtful and well-structured sci-if novel about a parallel universe where Neanderthals survived & homo sapiens died off. Then, a Neanderthal physicist accidentally drops through a portal to our universe in modern day Canada. The book was published in 2002 & therefore written as the first early phases of the internet took place. I wonder how the story would have come out differently if written a decade later when the internet and the smart phone were established. One key difference between our world and the Neanderthal counterpart is that every Neanderthal has a “Companion” grafted into his or her inner forearm that is like an advanced iPhone with a smarter version of Siri.  The gap, in other words, between the Neanderthal world and ours has shrunk in the years since the book first came out. I just started reading Humans, the second volume: so far, so good.

32. Gibbs, Stuart. Spy Ski School. Finished December 20, 2016.

Fourth in the hilarious series that my son reads and urges me to read immediately after he does. Gibbs channels the minds and concerns of middle-schoolers with a James Bondian overlay that is delightful and funny. With its speedy plot and engaging characters, I can’t believe this series hasn’t been optioned for a TV series. (Note: there was a 2008 movie called “Spy School” that is entirely unrelated.)  

I also admire how closely Gibbs engages with his young readers on his website.

And finally for 2016…

33. Perzanowski, Aaron and Jason Schultz. The End of Ownership: Personal Property in the Digital EconomyFinished December 29, 2016.

In this wide-ranging yet powerfully-focused book, two law professors explore the issues surrounding our cultural move from owning copies (of movies, CDs, books) to EaaS (Everything as a Service) alternatives like Netflix, Spotify and licensed ebooks (versus physical copies that are our property).

We are trading a lot for the convenience and wider selection of digital goods over physical, and after reading this book (which is surprisingly brief) I’m more aware of the tradeoffs than I was before. The ramifications are widespread, from the death of secondary markets (e.g., because you can’t sell the Netflix videos you’re done with on eBay) to attempts to block generic alternatives to manufacturer brands (printer ink, Keurig cups) and beyond… with added implications coming in the world of self-driving cars and 3D printers everywhere. This books makes a remarkable, if inadvertent, bookend with Edgerton’s Shock of the Old that I read last January (#3 on this list).

Thanks for reading! I’d love your comments, critiques and suggestions for further reading.

Here’s a sneak previews of books already on my desk to read or complete in 2017 in alphabetical order by author rather than ordered by likelihood of reading:

  • Samuel Arbesman, Overcomplicated: Technology at the Limits of Comprehension
  • Dan Ariely, Payoff: The Hidden Loginc that Shapes our Motivations
  • Harry Collins, Tacit & Explicit Knowledge
  • Jon Fine, Your Band Sucks: What I Saw at Indie Rock’s Failed Revolution (But Can No Longer Hear)
  • Thomas L. Friedman, Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations
  • Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion
  • Tim Harford, Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform our Lives
  • Joi Ito and Jeff Howe, Whiplash: How to Survive our Faster Future
  • Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities
  • Steven Johnson, Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World
  • Cal Newport, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World
  • Robert Sawyer, Humans: Volume Two of the Neanderthal Parallax
  • Pat Shipman, The Invaders: How Humans and Their Dogs Drove Neanderthals to Extinction
  • Cecily Sommers, Think Like a Futurist: Know What Changes, What Doesn’t, and What’s Next
  • Amy Webb, The Signals are Talking: Why Today’s Fringe is Tomorrow’s Mainstream
  • Tim Wu, The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads

The attentive will see some clear themes extended from both this year’s list and those of previous years. It will be interesting to see how many of these make it onto the 2017 list one year from now.

Happy New Year!

David Brooks Calls for a Third Party

I thought I was as done with the election as a boy can be, but despite a Coyote-plummeting-off-the-cliff decline of interest in the news I noticed David Brooks remarkable column from election day, “Let’s Not Do This Again” in which he resignedly calls for a third party to break the D.C. deadlock.

Here’s a relevant excerpt:

There has to be a compassionate globalist party, one that embraces free trade while looking after those who suffer from trade; that embraces continued skilled immigration while listening to those hurt by immigration; that embraces widening ethnic diversity while understanding that diversity can weaken social trust.

This was sufficiently akin to my own early-October call for bringing back the Whigs that it startled me: I admire Brooks but often disagree with him.

And this is yet another moment when, at least in part, I disagree with Brooks. The party he is describing  (and his whole column is worth a read) is the Democratic Party.

Where I agree with Brooks is that the current two-party system is irredeemably and irrevocably broken.

Side Note: For anybody who is still confused by how middle-class, non-coastal, non-college educated white Americans could so unequivocally vote for a New York billionaire narcissist with no intention of making their lives better, then you should click directly to Amazon (or better yet head to a local bookstore if your town still has one) and buy JD Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: a Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. It’s an amazing read — I ignored everything the day I inhaled it — and explains the psychology of the Trump voter… even though it never mentions Trump and was written when his candidacy was still a joke to most people.

My 2015 in Books

This is the second year that I’ve kept a list of all the books I’ve finished, sharing that list on New Year’s Eve once I’ve realized that I won’t finish anything else before midnight.  I’ve read plus-or-minus 56 books this year (the +/- will make sense if you read on), not counting re-reads or partial reads.

As I noted in last year’s list, I was inspired to do this by my friend David Daniel, who keeps a list of the books he wants to read with him at all time. 

2015 was a complex, challenging, exciting year for the Berens Family, as we spent the first half of the year living in Norway, moving back to Oregon over the summer.  Looking back at where my head was and correlated that to where my body was geographically helps to make sense of the year in intriguing ways— not unlike when I look into my sent-and-received email when I need to figure out what the heck I was doing on a given day.

You’ll see that I’m eclectic in my reading: lots of non-fiction, science fiction, media and marketing, with a new-this-year focus on behavioral economics. 

Here’s the list:

1. Hurwitz, Gregg.  Trust No One. Finished 1/9/15.  

I’d enjoyed Hurwitz’s “Crime Writer” book a few years back, but I don’t remember when this one made it into my iBooks on the iPad.  Perhaps it was a free volume somewhere along the lines.  A terrific thriller, fast paced with an interesting and flawed protagonist in Nick Horrigan.

2. Levitin, Daniel J. The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload. Finished 1/22/15.

Fantastic, smart, insightful. I’ll need to read it again to gather my thoughts into order.  I don’t say that often… although I think I felt the same way after finishing the Carse book Finite and Infinite Games

Levitan’s work on the significance of physical environments in an evermore digital world is not to be missed by any digital thinker.  It felt weird to read this book on the iPad, since one thrust of its argument is to be careful about digitization.

3. Sansom, C.J.  Lamentation. (Book 6 in the Matthew Shardlake series.) Finished 1/24/15.

Terrific book, as all the Shardlake novels are.  This one marked a major transition in the series as it moves from the reign of Henry VIII to young King Edward and with an eye towards Queen Elizabeth 1. 

4. Thomas, Rob & Jennifer Graham.  Veronica Mars: Mr. Kiss and Tell. (Book 2 in the Veronica Mars novels.) Finished 2/1/15.

Finished this during the flight back from London to Bergen after my iMedia UK “Data-Fuelled Marketing” keynote and subsequent hangout with my buddy Kevin M. Ryan in Amsterdam.  It’s in no way a surprise that Thomas, who created Veronica Mars, nails the sensibility and rhythms of the show and movie.  The only surprise is how much I loved both this book and the first one that I read last year: it’s like watching a long episode of the show.

5. Jones, October.  Texts From Dog.  Finished 2/6/15.

Dogless since the death of beloved Dexter in October of 2013, when my son happened across the hilarious Texts from Dog site we decided that we must support the creator, October Jones, by buying the book for my birthday.  If you’ve ever had a dog, then this prolonged fantasy of what a dog would text if he only had thumbs will bring a smile to your face.  The fact that it’s utterly profane as well makes the experience even better.

6. Aaronovitch, Ben.  Foxglove Summer (Peter Grant/Rivers of London Book #5). Finished 2/8/15.

Delightful fantasy novels written by a Doctor Who alumnus writer.  I imagine that #6 must be coming-real-soon. 

7. Harris, Sam.  Waking Up: Searching for spirituality without religion. Finished 2/13/15.

Way back in graduate school, my friend David Brewer told me about Richard Rorty’s Contingency, Irony and Solidarity and said that reading that book helped him to figure out his personal politics.  Likewise, this magnificent book by Sam Harris helped me to figure out my own sense of spirituality.  It’s a fascinating, bracing, personal, helpful work about mindfulness, who we are and who we aren’t, and how to live in the world.  One of the most important books of my year.

8. Hornby, Nick.  Funny Girl.  Finished 2/14/15.

Hornby is always good, and the nice this about this book is that it takes him back into the 1960s, away from his usual modern milieu.  An enjoyable, fast read.

9. McCloud, Scott.  The Sculptor.  Finished 2/15/15.  (Graphic novel, but at 488 pages it counts!)

I used to teach McCloud’s Understanding Comics as a writing text, and like all McCloud fans have been waiting for years for his next fictional work. This doesn’t disappoint: it’s a masterpiece of comics writing, brilliantly fusing words and pictures in a moving story about art, passion and life.

10. Sillitoe, Peter.  The Guide to Shakespearean London Theatres.  Finished 2/17/15.

A short, handy and fact-filled guide to the theaters of Shakespeare’s London that I zipped through as I was preparing a talk about Shakespeare for the iMedia UK team.

11. Nadel, Barbara.  A Passion for Killing.  Finished 2/22/15.  

An Inspector Ikmen and Inspector Suleyman mystery, set in Turkey.  Nothing exceptional here, but a quick and well-crafted read.  I wasn’t moved to read any more in the series, but didn’t regret reading this one, which is #9 in a series.

12. Nourbakhsh, Illah Reza.  Robot Futures Finished 3/2/15.

Smart meditation about how robotics will change our lives in the startlingly near future by a Carnegie Mellon roboticist. The book veers away from robotics towards the end — or expands the definition of robotics in ways I found unhelpful — but the first 3/4 were smart and clarifying.

13. Berger, Jonah.  Contagious: why things catch on Started & finished 3/7/15.

It’s rare that I can finish a non-fiction book in one day, but Berger is a fine writer explaining his research with clarity and gusto.  If you’re interested in what works and what doesn’t in advertising, then don’t miss this.

14. Dolan, Paul.  Happiness by Design: Finding pleasure and purpose in everyday life.  Finished 3/16/15.

Remarkable.  I’ve continued to think about this book at least weekly since reading it — along with Harris (and Kahneman, coming up next) one of my tops for 2015 — and I don’t know why this isn’t being read in every book club in the English speaking world.  A fascinating combination of economics and psychology. 

15. Kahneman, Daniel.  Thinking Fast and Slow.  Finished 4/11/15.

At last, at last!  I have too much to say about this book in this compendium, so please see my blog post: Daniel Kahneman kicks my ass, or Reading Fast and Slow.” 

16. Schrage, Michael.  Who Do You Want Your Customers to Become? Finished 4/18/15.

A short, impressive book that pivots the reader’s understanding of the project of a business from asking a consumer to “buy this thing” to asking that consumer to “become this person.”  It’s one of those exercises that will help any business going through a strategy session or major transition.

17. Riordan, Rick. The Lost Hero. (Heroes of Olympus #1.) Finished 4/21/15.

I promised my son that I’d catch up on the Percy Jackson novels, and this was the first of the second series.  Terrific YA fiction.  Riordan is prolific and always good. 

18. Sterling, Bruce, ed.  Twelve Tomorrows 2014: MIT Technology Review Annual SF Anthology.  Finished 4/22/15.

The always-strong, always-provocative anthology of SF stories from MIT’s Technology Review— I never miss it.

19. Riordan, Rick.  The Son of Neptune.  (Heroes of Olympus #2.)  Finished 4/25/15. 

20. Sicart, Miguel.  Play Matters.  Finished 5/3/15.

Play has been a notion increasingly on my mind as key to why some technologies proliferate and some don’t. 

Play is different than the popular term gamification, and Sicart’s brief but well-written book teases out the differences nicely.  “Designing for play means creating a setting weather than a system, a stage rather than a world, a model rather than a puzzle. Whatever is created has to be open, flexible, and malleable to allow players to appropriate, express, act and interact, make, and become part of the form itself” (90).

21. Wright, Helen S.  A Matter of Oaths Finished 5/13/15.

Steve Patrizi linked to a list of great SciFi that included Wright’s 1990, sadly out of print, but delightfully free on her website space opera.  Ahead of its time in its gender politics with gay characters, the Locus review is right when it suggests that this is an entire series crammed into one novel, but it’s still great fun.

22. Gibbs, Stuart.  Spy School.  Finished 5/15/15.

Another in a series that I read with my son: this is Austin Powers for middle schoolers.  Great fun, and we’ve enjoyed the whole trilogy.  I hope Gibbs writes more!

23. Delany, Samuel R.  The Einstein Intersection. Finished 5/17/15.

When I asked my friend Joseph Carrabis who his favorite science fiction authors are, Delany topped his list.  I can see why: this 1967 book is fascinating and hard to describe since it is told from the POV of aliens who have inhabited a far-future dead Earth and are attempting to live out human lives reconstructed from what the species left behind.  Smart, deep, moving, esoteric and memorable. 

24. Macleod, Ken.  The Cassini Division. 5/19/15.

Published in 2000, this was an interesting, unplanned juxtaposition with Delany, since it deals with what happens to the normal humans left behind when some members of our species become post-human.  A sci-fi version of HBO’s “The Leftovers” series that talks about what happens to the rest of us post-Rapture.  Interesting, well written. 

25. Gibbs, Stuart.  Spy Camp  (Spy School #2).  Finished 5/24/15.

26. Bujold, Lois McMaster.  Ethan of Athos.  Finished 5/31/15. (A reread technically but I didn’t remember most of it for some reason.)

Bujold, as I’ve said many times, is my favorite living science fiction writer, and one of my favorite writers ever.  This book is set in a cul-de-sac off the main path of her award-winning Vorkosigan universe, and it asks the question “what would an all-male society do to make babies?”  Not a great introduction to the Vorkosigan books, but a great independent read.

27. Sharp, Byron.  How Brands Grow: what marketers don’t know.  Finished 6/3/15. 

When two friends in two countries (Carol Phillips in the US and Michael Bayler in the UK) independently raved about this book, I had to get it.  It’s hands down the smartest marketing book I’ve ever read, and one that delightfully punctures through a lot of market mumbo jumbo.  Sharp is brilliant, incisive and sometimes wince-inducingly mean in his footnotes.  Will keep thinking on this one, and I’m thrilled that a sequel has just come out!

28. Baker, Kage.  In the Garden of Iden (A Novel of The Company #1).  Finished 6/11/15.

A crazy time-travel story where a mega-corporation recruits orphans throughout time and turns them into immortals to do their bidding, secretly taking control of all civilization.  Imagine the Time Lords of Doctor Who, only without conscience.  The protagonist is a woman named Mendoza, whose first adventure is in pre-Shakespearean Elizabethan England.  A speedy, fun read… enjoyable enough that I read the second one as well, and may go onto the others some day.

29. Asaro, Catharine.  Undercity.  Finished 6/21/15.  

A new murder mystery series set in a prequel time to Asaro’s terrific Skolian Empire series.  Science Fiction and Mystery often don’t mesh well, but they do here.  This is a less soapy, more SF version of J. D. Robb’s “In Death” series (Robb is a pseudonym for romance novelist Nora Roberts).

Note: this novel includes “City of Cries,” a novella that I read in 2013.

30. Thaler, Richard.  Misbehaving: the Making of Behavioral Economics.  Finished 6/24/15.

Behavioral Economics fascinates me, and Thaler has been at ground zero for the birth and development of this new academic discipline.  He’s an insightful and hilarious writer, and so this is not to be missed if you’re interested in these matters.  It was a lucky chance that I got to read this and Kahneman within just a few weeks of each other.

31. Baker, Kage.  Sky Coyote (A Novel of The Company #2).  Finished 6/29/15.

32. Lee, Sharon & Steve Miller.  Dragon in Exile. (Liaden Universe.) Finished 7/3/15.

A robust new entry in Lee and Millers wide-spanning Liaden Universe SF series.  There is simply no way that a new reader will understand what’s going on in this book if she or he hasn’t read a half dozen other books, short stories and chapbooks, but I’ve read most of them and think they’re terrific space opera.  Start by heading over to this page on the authors’ website if you’re looking for a new series.

33. Wolff, Michael.  Television is the New Television: the Unexpected Triumph of Old Media in the Digital Age.  Finished 7/7/15.  

This book frustrated and puzzled me: see this post for details

34. Wilson, G. Willow & Adrian Alphona.  Ms. Marvel: No Normal.  (Trade paperback of issues 1-5.)  Finished 7/7/15.

and…

Wilson, G. Willow & Adrian Alphona.  Ms. Marvel: Generation Why.  (Trade paperback of issues 6-10.)  Finished 7/23/15.

and…

Wilson, G. Willow & Adrian Alphona.  Ms. Marvel: Crushed (Trade paperback of issues 12-15 & S.H.I.E.D. #2.)  Finished 11/23/15.

Ordinarily, I don’t include comics in this list, but Ms. Marvel is remarkable: a 16 year old Pakistani-American who get superpowers while still going to high school in Jersey City.  It evokes memories of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in the best possible way, although it’s much different.  Counting all of these as one book: a must if you have teenagers in the house.

35. Bujold, Lois McMaster.  Penric’s Demon.  Finished 7/22/15.

Bujold is Just. So. Good.  This is a short work in her “Five Gods” fantasy series, but you don’t need to have read any of the other works in that series to enjoy this yarn about what happens when a ne’er do well second son of a minor aristocratic family accidentally becomes possessed by a powerful demon.

36. Lambert, Craig.  Shadow Work: The Unpaid, Unseen Jobs That Fill Your Day. Finished 7/26/15.

I first bumped into the notion of Shadow Work in Levitin’s Information Overload (Book #2 this year), and thought it was a compelling notion.  Lambert’s is a more exhaustive (although not exhausting) treatise on how our DIY culture expects us to do things ourselves that other people used to help us accomplish.  Worthwhile, although unless you’re fascinated with this sort of thing the passage in Levitin that covers Shadow Work will serve.

37. Gibbs, Stuart.  Evil Spy School.  (Spy School #3).  Finished 7/31/15.

38. Corey, James S.A.  Leviathan Wakes (The Expanse Book 1).  Finished August 9, 2015.

Terrific space opera, now a TV series on SyFy.  The book is mammoth, and therefore daunting (there are six of them each around 600 pages), but well-crafted, briskly plotted and enjoyable.  It’s the kind of commitment that Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars series was a few years back: worth it, but not if you’re in a rush.

39. Moore, Geoffrey A.  Crossing the Chasm: Marketing and Selling Disruptive Products to Mainstream Customers. (3rd Edition). Finished 8/13/15.

Recently-updated classic work about technology adoption written from a B2B marketing point of view but applicable elsewhere.

40. Cline, Ernest.  Armada: a novel.  Finished 8/24/15.

Disappointing, particularly after Cline’s interesting debut Ready Player One.  Armada is too disappointing even to write a snarky review.  Don’t bother.  It’s a lesser version of the movie Pixels.

41. Scalzi, John. The End of All Things (#6 in the Old Man’s War series). Finished 8/26/15.  

Great read, but only if you’re already devoted to the series, which I am. 

42. Yancey, Rick.  The 5th Wave.  Finished 8/30/15.

Recommended by my friend Brian David Johnson, who told me it was dark.  He wasn’t kidding!  The most disturbing thing about this book is that it’s intended for the YA crowd.  The plot is horrifyingly dark, with a teen girl losing everything as humanity’s darkest hour arrives.  I am in shock that they’ve made a soon-to-be-released movie of this, although after the success of the atrocious Hunger Games series I suppose anything is possible.

43. Leckie, Ann.  Ancillary Justice.  Finished 9/10/15.  

Once again from that list shared by Steve Patrizi, the conceit of this book is remarkable: a human body formerly animated as a Borg-like drone member of a hive mind that helped to crew a starship has been sundered from her vessel, and now must make her way as an individual.  Far future space opera: I loved this book so much that I had to let it sit for a couple of weeks, but then I inhaled the second and third.

44. Lagercrantz, David.  The Girl in the Spider’s Web (Millennium #4).  Finished 9/14/15.

A perfectly adequate continuation of the Steig Larsson “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” series, which peaked with #1.  This is one of those books that will only be enjoyable if you read it when it first comes out, so I grabbed it and read it immediately. 

45. Taleb, Nassim Nicholas.  Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder Finished 9/23/15.

Brilliant, fascinating, frustrating.  I needed a buddy to make it though this complex book, and fortunately had one in John Willshire.  I don’t know if this is a compliment or an insult, but having just finished Antifragile I feel that I won’t truly understand it until I read it again.

46. Leckie, Ann.  Ancillary Sword.  (Sequel to Ancillary Justice.)  Finished 9/27/15.

47. Leckie, Ann.  Ancillary Mercy (3rd in the Ancillary Justice trilogy.)  Finished 10/8/15.

I wish there were more coming in this series, but I think she’s done.

48. Selznick, Brian.  The Marvels Finished 10/21/15.

Beautiful, theatrical, lyrical and secretly complicated: Selznick’s hybrid graphic and prose works continue to impress and delight me. The Marvels is his most structurally ambitious work to date: two stories overlap each other. At first, they seem to have no point of contact, but then — Cloud Atlas-like — they do.  The interlocking surprises of the last third of the book kept me reading later into the night than I’d planned.  At nearly 700 pages it’s an amazingly quick read since most of those pages are single-page illustrations.

49. FitzGerald, John D.  The Great Brain.  Finished early November. 

Childhood re-read that I grabbed out of the library for my son, and then read myself when he wasn’t interested. I’ll try again to get him to read it. It’s good.

50. Hoffman, Bob.  Marketers Are From Mars: Consumers Are From New Jersey.  Finished 11/6/2015.

Terrific, bracing, laugh-out-loud reality check on the BS of marketing and advertising— recommended by Renny Gleeson and Brian Wieser

51. Riordan, Rick.  The Mark of Athena. (Heroes of Olympus: Book 3).  Finished 11/8/2015.  

Enjoyable installment. There are just so many characters that it is hard to engage emotionally with any of them, but it is action-packed and fun.  I can’t keep up with my son’s reading these days.  

52. Allison, John.  Bad Machinery: The Case of the Team Spirit.  Finished 11/15/15.  

Collected web comic of this British series.  Six kids in high middle or lower high school… kind of like the Trixie Belden gang, only British.  Recommended by Karen Hohndel.  Pretty good, although I’m not on fire to read another as I’m decades past the target audience.

53. Dunstall, S. K.   Linesman.  Finished 11/17/15.

First in a terrific new space opera series recommend by Karen Hohndel.  I inhaled it and look forward to the release of #2 in February.  Not a lot of science fiction deals with class engagingly, but this book does.  It reminds me slightly of Heinlein’s Citizen of the Galaxy in that regard.

54. Carr, Nicholas.  The Glass Cage: How Our Computers Are Changing Us. Finished 11/25/15.  

An accidental companion to the Nourbakhsh book on robotics and to Levitin’s Organized Mind from earlier this year, Carr is an insightful critic of the advantages and disadvantages of our digital lives.  This is a nice followup to his earlier book The Shallows, and is required reading if you’re thinking through how connected experiences will change human life.

55. Hidalgo, César.  Why Information Grows: The Evolution of Order, from Atoms to Economies.  Finished 12/10/15.  

An eccentric take on how our tight information density is what makes Earth and its inhabitants different than the rest of the universe.  The book is truly interdisciplinary, mixing “information theory, physics, sociology, and economics.”  It sometimes made me think of the work of Jane Jacobs and also that of Steven Berin Johnson on environments. 

Hidalgo is acute about how the physicality of objects differs from narratives about objects, and I love his notion of balance of imagination as opposed to balance of trade.  On the other hand, when he starts talking about “personbytes” (how much information individuals possess) as an actual metric the argument spirals into nonsense.  I also consistently wondered why the book didn’t engage deeply with how digital technologies change information and human relationships to it, but I am in touch with how much that’s me projecting my own obsessions onto the book.

56. Card, Orson Scott.  Gatefather (Mithermages Book #3 of 3).  Finished 12/18/15.  

I’d read the first two (Lost Gate & Gate Thief) a year or so ago.  When I saw that this one had come out I realized that I couldn’t remember most of Gate Thief, so I reread #1 and #2 before jumping into #3.  It’s a solid, interesting fantasy series… although as with other pieces of Card’s work there’s an ongoing problem of characters getting powered up to godlike levels as the series continues.  Here, the ratcheting up of power levels across the dramatis personae means that the series gets decreasingly interesting by the end.  I’m also leery of Scott’s lily white, hetro-only world view.  

That’s the list for 2015.  A pile of books awaits me in 2016: I’m in the middle of Michael Polanyi’s classic The Tacit Dimension, so expect that in first or second position next year.  I’m also midway through Rachel Bach’s “Honor’s Knight,” the sequel to “Fortune’s Pawn” that I read late in 2014.

Thanks for making it this far!

[Cross-posted over on Medium.]

The Girl in the Spider’s Web isn’t terrible, isn’t great

Over the weekend I zoomed through the new David Lagercrantz novel, The Girl in the Spider’s Web, which is the not-written-by-Stieg-Larsson sequel to the Millenium Trilogy that started with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

I’ll start with some thoughts about the book itself — so you have your spoiler alert — but I’ll wind up this post with some thoughts about the the aesthetics of ephemera and vice versa.

About the novel: It’s a good gulp-it-down novel, quickly plotted and dark in similar ways to the Larsson books (although not nearly as dark as Larsson’s third, which sucked the light of out the room where I was reading it).

But the book feels unnecessary. After the riveting revelations about Salander’s childhood in Larsson’s third book, The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, there’s not much left to say about Lisbeth Salander’s past, and any changes to the character in service of a future would risk betraying the readers who want more of the same. This is a terrible trap for a novelist.

Lagercrantz couldn’t escape the trap, so he has reduced Salander to a series of narrative functions rather like what happened to Sherlock Holmes in the Holmes stories written by others after Conan Doyle’s death (and there are thousands). In most of these stories, Holmes is a pastiche of narrative-advancing tricks (he deduces that Watson been to the horse races from a bit of straw on Watson’s shoe, causing gullible Watson always to be astounded yet again) rather than a character that interests the reader himself. With the exception of Nicholas Meyer’s The Seven Percent Solution, talking about Holmes as a character is like talking about Batman’s utility belt as a character— it’s not all that useful.

In the post-Larsson world of the Lagercrantz, Salander is an angry superhero, superhacker, protector of innocents who bursts onto the scene regularly, makes things happen, and then disappears. 

The Girl in the Spider’s Web is a misleading title for this book, since Salander is never caught, never motionless, never the prey despite being hunted— she is the predator.

I don’t regret reading the book — despite my sense that it serves the publisher’s greed rather than the readers’ need — but I probably won’t read the next one, and I’m sure there will be a next one.

The aesthetics of ephemera: Perhaps more importantly, I don’t regret reading the book last weekend— my satisfaction index will never be higher than just a few days after its August 27th release date. The longer I wait, the more information from the world will trickle in to spoil my fun.

This isn’t just true of The Girl in the Spider’s Web, of course. The reason that a movie’s lifetime economic success usually is a function of its opening weekend is that the water cooler conversation about a movie is at its frothiest after opening weekend. 

I love to see movies (particularly popcorn movies) opening weekend — although I rarely get to do so — because that’s the moment of maximum potential for having that explosive moment of connection in my own head to other movies and works, and it’s also the moment of maximum potential for having fun discussions with other people about the movie and its broader context.

But the longer I wait to see a movie, the more likely I’ll hear something about it that will diminish that connection-making pleasure for me. I’m not talking about classic “the girl’s really a guy!” plot spoilers, although those suck. Instead, I’m talking about those trying-to-be-helpful hints that come from people who’ve already seen the movie. “I’m not going to tell you anything, but you have to stay all the way to the end of the credits: it’s really cool!”

This is a horrible thing to say to somebody going to a movie you’ve already seen since it means that the viewer will detach from the climax of the movie early, in order to focus on the extra coming after the end.

The ephemera of aesthetics: We don’t have good language to talk about this phenomenon, the very short half-life of the water cooler effect on how we experience culture.

We’re good at talking about the work itself, the creation of the work, the background and previous efforts of the creators of the work.

But we’re bad at talking about how we are a moving point in time relative to the work, and how satisfaction decays with some works but deepens with others.

For example, I’ve been a fan of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan series for about 20 years now, and they merit re-reading. I see new things in the characters, the plot, and her writing when I revisit the books. Although Bujold’s books are masterfully plotted, I can’t reduce my satisfaction with her books to the plot, and this is good.

Lagercrantz’s book is entirely about the plot: at the end of the story all the energy has been released from the plot, a bunch of the characters are either dead or narratively exhausted, and Salander will need to be released into a new situation to exercise her narrative function.

Some sorts of aesthetic experience, then, are fragile in Nasism Nicholas Taleb’s notion of fragility and antifragility.

Plot is fragile. Character is not inherently, but for a character to be antifragile that character must exceed the needs of the plot in which the character embedded. 

Ironically, inside the world of The Girl in the Spider’s Web Lisbeth Salander is indestructible: nothing stops her. Meanwhile, for this reader the experience of reading about Salander’s latest adventure is soap bubble ephemeral.

Pop.

[Cross posted with Medium.]

Daniel Kahneman kicks my ass, or Reading Fast and Slow

Like Moe, the schoolyard bully in Calvin & Hobbes, Daniel Kahneman has taken away my cognitive lunch money for the last four years. 

Moe

To be clear, it isn’t the 81-year-old Nobel laureate himself: it’s his best-selling 2011 book Thinking Fast and Slow.

Let me back up.

I read fiction quickly, sometimes gobbling up a novel during a plane ride or a rare quiet evening. Nonfiction, though, goes down more slowly. Even delightfully-well-written nonfiction books (Adam Grant’s Give & Take, anything by Steven Johnson) go into my mind with kidney-stone-passing-out perceived slowness when compared to, say, the latest by Neil Gaiman.  I inhaled Nick Hornby’s Funny Girl so quickly last month that I belched afterward, metaphorically, of course.

But I can speed up my non-fiction reading rate by having a project at hand.  Right now, for example, I’m working on two different, oddly-echoing projects: the first is about the future of technology and user behavior and the second is about Shakespeare as a business innovator.  These projects are my cognitive rudders, helping me sail through non-fiction arguments and implications at higher speed, evaluating their relevance to my own work while making notes about interesting other bits for later.

So getting back to Kahneman, this is my third attempt at Thinking Fast and Slow, his remarkable book about how humans are not nearly as rational as we think we are when it comes to making all sorts of judgments and decisions.  I’m about to start the fifth and last section, and this progress is because of the projects.

My first try was on the iPad, but what that copy of the book taught me was that I read, metabolize and retain nonfiction better on paper, with pencil in hand, underlining, annotating and making notes in the back of the book.  If I let you borrow a copy of any of my nonfiction books, then I must trust you a lot because I’m giving you a voyeuristic window into my mind, and you’ll see any number of checks, asterisks, “yeahs,” and longer marginalia.

Susan MacDermid, my then-boss and now-business partner, then gave me a hardback copy of Thinking Fast and Slow.  I attacked it, pencil in hand, but that was around the same time that I was jetting all over the planet on business, and the hardback copy was greedily taking up most of my precious briefcase space, so I stopped lugging it around.

Over the last few weeks, though, my thoughts have returned to Kahneman time and again as my two projects have come into focus, so on a weekend jaunt to England from Norway I picked up a paperback copy at Waterstone’s and dug back in. 

Now, with projects in mind, I’m now able to place Kahneman’s arguments in context, tweak them into different directions, and think through what the book isn’t talking about as well as what it does claim.

This is great news, and a good rule-of-thumb for difficult books in the future: projects speed progress.

On the other hand, it’s bad news for when I’m between projects, as general reading without the frame of what I’m trying to do with it will slow back down to my normal molasses pace with nonfiction.

I expect I’ll finish Thinking Fast and Slow tomorrow.  It’s a magnificent book— and also laugh out loud funny in many places.  It has been a pleasure and a privilege to read it, and I expect to read it again. 

With luck, the next reading won’t take four years.

[Cross-posted with Medium.]