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.]

Against Disruption: Louis Menand, Douglas Adams, Books and Technology

Have you ever smacked into a glass door when you didn’t realize it was closed?  I have.  It hurts.  The intersection of my face and a glass door happened at my great aunt’s tiny desert house in the 80s, where the mix of a trick of the sunlight and my distracted boyhood mind made the door invisible.

More alarming than the pain was the surprise.  A barrier I could not see had prevented me from making progress in the direction I wanted to go.

Many people and many businesses have this problem.

Sometimes life throws you glass doors, and the trick is to find your gratitude.  You need to appreciate that now you know about the barrier while you’re rubbing an aching schnoz. 

I felt this way after reading Louis Menand’s insightful, generous and intelligent piece “The Birth of Pulp Fiction” in the latest (January 5th) issue of The New Yorker, which shows that the paperback book and the bookstore itself were relatively recent developments in the United States:

Back when people had to leave the house if they wanted to buy something, the biggest problem in the book business was bookstores. There were not enough of them. Bookstores were clustered in big cities, and many were really gift shops with a few select volumes for sale. Publishers sold a lot of their product by mail order and through book clubs, distribution systems that provide pretty much the opposite of what most people consider a fun shopping experience—browsing and impulse buying.

Allen Lane created the mass-market paperback in England when he founded Penguin Books in 1935, and Robert de Graff brought it to the United States in 1939 when he launched Pocket Books.

Menand synthesizes several books in this article, leading to useful nuggets like:

The key to Lane’s and de Graff’s innovation was not the format. It was the method of distribution. More than a hundred and eighty million books were printed in the United States in 1939, the year de Graff introduced Pocket Books, but there were only twenty-eight hundred bookstores to sell them in. There were, however, more than seven thousand newsstands, eighteen thousand cigar stores, fifty-eight thousand drugstores, and sixty-two thousand lunch counters—not to mention train and bus stations. De Graff saw that there was no reason you couldn’t sell books in those places as easily as in a bookstore.

The mass-market paperback was therefore designed to be displayed in wire racks that could be conveniently placed in virtually any retail space. People who didn’t have a local bookstore, and even people who would never have ventured into a bookstore, could now browse the racks while filling a prescription or waiting for a train and buy a book on impulse.

Reading Menand’s terrific piece, I kept waiting for him to connect the dots between the birth of the mass-market book seventy or eighty years ago and the rise of Amazon.com over the last few years.  Perhaps the fact that I was reading The New Yorker on an iPad made this all the more compelling a connection, but Menand is a historian rather than a futurist, so he didn’t make the link and the article pivots instead into a discussion of censorship.

So what was my glass door?

A lifelong book lover, I grew up in Los Angeles in the 1970s and 1980s, in Encino in the San Fernando Valley.  Back then, L.A. was a great bookstore town from tiny little specialty shops like Scene of the Crime for mysteries, Dangerous Visions and A Change of Hobbit for science fiction, to broader bookstores like Alpha Books, the Bookie Joint and Midnight Special… to name just a few of my then favorites now long shuttered. 

For years, I’ve blamed Crown Books, Borders, Barnes and Noble and, of course, my own love/hate relationship with Amazon.com for the death of the independent bookstore in one of the biggest — and most readerly — cities in the country.  Intrinsic to my resentment was a conviction that until these black mustachioed villains skulked onto the scene my beloved bookstores had been there forever.  They were institutions!  Instead, Menand shows compellingly that they’d just been around since around the time my parents were born.  If my grandparents were still alive they could have told me this… if I’d thought to ask them.

Smack.

The glass door connects to a perspective on technology and innovation that Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy author Douglas Adams articulated in his hilarious and smart 1999 London Times article, “How to Stop Worrying and Learn to Love the Internet” —

I suppose earlier generations had to sit through all this huffing and puffing with the invention of television, the phone, cinema, radio, the car, the bicycle, printing, the wheel and so on, but you would think we would learn the way these things work, which is this:

1) everything that’s already in the world when you’re born is just normal;

2) anything that gets invented between then and before you turn thirty is incredibly exciting and creative and with any luck you can make a career out of it;

3) anything that gets invented after you’re thirty is against the natural order of things and the beginning of the end of civilisation as we know it until it’s been around for about ten years when it gradually turns out to be alright really.

Apply this list to movies, rock music, word processors and mobile phones to work out how old you are.

(Add smart phones, tablets, wearable computers, 3D printers and automated homes to Adams’ list to update it for 2015.)

For me, bookstores were “just normal” because they were already there when I started reading, but my normal is different than my grandparents’ normal was. 

This is like the conversation I have with my kids about how back in the stone age before they were born people had to watch television shows when they were on rather than record them and watch later, and how it wasn’t that big a burden because there weren’t that many channels anyway.  My son looks at me like I rode a brontosaurus to the office.

The book-selling and business that Amazon is so effectively pressurizing hasn’t actually been around that long, similar to how general literacy hasn’t been around that long.  That  means that rather than think about how Amazon disrupts the book-selling business, it might be more useful to think about how the mass-market book-selling business is still pretty new and still evolving.

This might seem like a subtle distinction, but the problem with disruption as a buzzword — and oh boy is it a popular buzzword lately — is that it sets up binary* David versus Goliath dynamics where the realities are more complicated.

Life is easier when you only have to worry about two entities: the Empire and the Rebellion, the Federation and the Klingons, the Ducks and the Buckeyes, Russia and the USA.

But the reality is that more than two entities are in play most of the time.

Over the course of the last few decades: book selling, buying and reading has increased by many orders of magnitude.  More people buy books and read for pleasure now than they did when my grandparents were born.  This happened because of the reduction in costs in the creation of books and the ease of distribution in the selling of books, first with paperbacks and then with Amazon.com.

That’s not a disruption.

It’s an eruption.

[Cross-posted on Medium.]

* Americans love binary arguments: Deborah Tannen talked about this is her useful 1998 book, The Argument Culture: Stopping America’s War of Words.

My 2014 in Books

I read a lot — magazines, two newspapers, email newsletters, and countless social-media-shared links I chase down digital rabbit holes. I’d never know anything, for example, without Jason Hirshhorn’s magnificent daily Media Redefined.

But I’m lost without books.  Actual books.  Whether paper or digital, if I’m not reading at least two books then I get grumpy and feel IQ points oozing out of my ears and down the shower drain.

So one year ago, inspired by my friend David Daniel who keeps a list of books he wants to read, I decided to keep a list of books I finished in 2014. Since it is now 12/31/14 and I’m not going to finish any of the three books I’m reading at the moment, what follows is my 2014 list with brief remarks added.

Note: with the exception of My Side of the Mountain I am not counting re-reads. Often, at night, or when I’m in need of a visit with an old friend, I dive back into a novel I’ve already read. My kids are the same way. Since I tell the two of them that this doesn’t count for their reading, I’m not counting it towards my own.

Looking back, there’s a lot of fiction in this list.  I need fiction like I need oxygen (except when I’m writing fiction), and most of the business writing I read comes in articles.  I wonder what the fiction/non-fiction balance will be next year?

So here’s the list:

Dashner, James.  The Maze Runner.  Finished 1/1/14.

I read a fair amount of YA or children’s books, usually in quest of reading matter for my kids, but in this case it was for a project a friend and I were contemplating. Not bad but not good enough for me to read any farther.

Sloan, Robin. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. Finished 1/4/14.

A fun ride, albeit only pancake deep. I inhaled this over a day or so at the start of last year. A good yarn for any of the digerati who mourn the loss of bookstores and wonder about the future of book-length reading in a digital age.

Elberse, Anita. Blockbusters: Hit-Making, Risk-Taking & the Big Business of Entertainment. Finished 1/22/14.

Interesting and thoughtful, and powerfully presented. What I wanted, though, were more connections outside of entertainment to the rest of business and human endeavor. A missed opportunity.

Eggers, Dave.  The Circle. Finished 1/23/14.

A frustrating book… it annoyed but compelled me in a similar way to Aaron Sorkin’s just-finished HBO show “The Newsroom.” There’s a smugness to Eggers that grates, and I don’t think he understands how companies like Facebook and Google work.

Asaro, Catherine. The Spacetime Pool.  Finished 2/5/14.

Novella in Asaro’s fantastic “Saga of the Skolian Empire” series, which is great fun for people who like space opera with good physics and a bit of romance.

Aaronovitch, Ben. Broken Homes: a Rivers of London Novel. Finished 2/15/14.

#4 in Rivers of London. I saw #5 on the shelves at Foyle’s in London last week and am excited to read it when the e-book comes out in a few days. This series is delightful fantasy set in modern-day London, written by one of the many “Doctor Who” alumni who go on, like Douglas Adams, to write novels.

Semmelhack, Peter. Social Machines: the Next Wave of Innovation; How to Develop Connected Products that Change Customers’ Lives. Finished 3/09/14.

A good introduction to the Internet of Things, more practical than visionary.

Craighead George, Jean.  My Side of the Mountain.  Finished 3/11/14.  

I read this when I was a kid, found it on my son’s shelf, and re-read it with lip-smacking pleasure.  I was looking in particular for a discussion of how you want a machete rather than an axe, which I remembered from a book I read decades ago, but didn’t find it in this terrific book. Anybody out there know what I’m talking about?

Thomas, Rob.  Veronica Mars: the Thousand-Dollar Tan Line.  Finished 4/3/14.

Loved the Veronica Mars movie that came out around the same time and couldn’t get enough of it, so I read the novel. Fun. Nailed the voice and sensibility of the series. I look forward to the next one, which comes out soon.

Grant, Adam. Give and Take: a Revolutionary Approach to Success. Finished 4/11/14.

One of the best business-y books I’ve read in the last few years, I tore through this after Dana Anderson praised it at the AAAA’s, and had the pleasure of trading notes with Adam Grant subsequently. I can’t say enough nice things about this book. It’s brilliant, and — perhaps more importantly and certainly a surprise coming from a social scientist — it’s beautifully written.

Greenwood, Kerry.  Cocaine Blues.  Phrynne Fisher #1.  Finished May sometime.

Between May and July I inhaled seven of these murder mysteries set in Victorian Australia.  Karen, a woman who practices Tae Kwon-do with my son back in Oregon, and I talk books, and she was flying through them. These are like McNuggets: I kept tearing through them at high speed until I hit a satiation point and stopped.  Formulaic and with a bit of the Ensign Mary Sue about them, I recommend these to historical mystery lovers who also like a recurring cast of characters. The Australian TV series based on these (streaming on either Netflix or Amazon Prime) isn’t bad, although not as good as the books. Things rarely are.  Just this note for all this series.

Greenwood, Kerry. Flying Too High. Phyrnne Fisher #2.  Finished May sometime.

Greenwood, Kerry.  Murder on the Ballarat Train.  Phrynne Fisher #3.  5/28/14.

Greenwood, Kerry. Death at Victoria Dock.  Phynne Fisher #4. Finished 6/13/14.

Greenwood, Kerry.  The Green Mill Murder. Phynne Fisher #5. Finished 6/16/14.

Gottschall, Jonathan. The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human. Finished 6/20/14.

A friend — either Ari Popper of Sci Futures or Brian Seth Hurst of Story Tech — recommended this to me at CES.  Good popular science journalism, but I don’t have clear memories of it now, which is a bit of a ding.

Deaver, Jeffrey. The Skin Collector. Finished 6/24/14.

I read it because of my affection for The Bone Collector, but it wasn’t very good.

Miller, Derek B.  Norwegian by Night.  Finished 7/13/14.

My friend Rishad Tobaccowala recommended this to me when he found out I was moving to Norway for the school year.  It’s fantastic: an emotionally engaged and heart-stopping thriller starring an 80 year old Korean War Vet set in Oslo. I can’t believe this hasn’t been made into a movie yet. Clint Eastwood should direct and star.

McKeown, Greg.  Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less.  Finished 7/13/14.

This book taught me a lot about how I sabotage my own productivity: I read it with passionate intensity in paper, and then bought a digital copy to bring with me to Norway. It’s on my “to re-read in January list,” which isn’t a long one.

Greenwood. Kerry.  Blood and Circuses. Phynne Fisher #6. Finished 7/18/14.

MacLeod, Hugh.  Ignore Everybody and 39 Other Keys to Creativity.  Finished 7/23/14.

I admire MacLeod and hadn’t gotten around to reading the book for no good reason. It’s short, sweet and smart. Don’t miss, particularly if you like his cartoons.

Greenwood. Kerry. Ruddy Gore.  Phynne Fisher #7. Finished 7/24/14.

Russ, Joanna.  The Adventures of Alyx.  Finished 8/14/13.

Back in college, my friend Keylan Qazzaz wrote her senior thesis about women in science fiction with a particular focus on this book. I picked it up a few years later, but never got around to reading it.  Then, as I was packing for Norway and grabbing books from the “I’ve been meaning to read this” pile (a big pile), I saw this.  Turns out, it’s a collection of short stories and novellas featuring a terrific protagonist who seems to have amnesia between each story.  More strong space opera.  A bit hard to find now, but quite good.

Shenk, Joshua Wolf.  Powers of Two: Finding the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairs.  Finished 8/31/14.

I enjoyed the Atlantic excerpt of this book and decided to read the whole thing, which I did in short order.  It’s a powerful antidote to the “genius alone is his garrett” Romantic myth that still pervades western notions of creativity and genius. However, I’d have liked more on how groups collaborate, and think that his focus on the pair is unnecessarily limiting.  Still a worthwhile read, and in addition it lead me to Carse (see below).

Huizinga, Johan.  Homo Ludens: a study of the play element in culture. Finished 9/9/14.

Play is important to how I think about disruptive technologies (much more about this in 2015), and a few years ago my friend and partner Susan MacDermid mentioned this book from the 1930s.  It’s a tough read — continental philosophy that seems deliberately, almost hermetically sealed away against non-specialist readers — but worthwhile and interesting and useful for my thinking.

Powers, Tim.  Expiration Date.  Finished 9/20/14. 

Powers wrote my all-time favorite time travel story, The Anubis Gates, but I never managed to get into this one or it’s quasi-sequel (see below) even though I’ve had them for years.  Powers’ imagination is powerful and intricate, and it takes time to settle into the worlds he creates.  By the time I made it to page 50 I was hooked, and then I was sorry when it ended.  Don’t give up on this one too easily.

Wilson, Daniel H.  Robopocalypse.  Finished 10/10/14.

My friend Renny Gleeson recommended this, and it’s yummy sci-fi candy along the lines of the Terminator movie series only updated to include how the world works post-internet.  For paranoiacs worried about AI, this is either something to embrace or something to avoid for fear of never sleeping again.

Carse, James P.  Finite and Infinite Games: a vision of life as play and possibility. Finished 10/12/14.

As I mentioned, the Shenk book turned me onto Carse.  Like Huizinga, this is far from an easy book to read or understand, but it’s an important meditation on play.  It’s particularly important for Americans, I think, with our cultural tendency to bottom line everything and be more concerned with the final score than how the game was.

Gawande, Atul.  The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right. Finished 10/21/14.

Gawande is one of those people who does so much in a day to make the world a better place that he makes me feel like a loser, even though I’m sure that if I said this to him in person he’d charm me into feeling like a superhero until the next morning.  He’s a terrific writer, and in our information-overload era this book is both moving and useful for anybody who despairs of getting the important things done.

Mann, George.  The Affinity Bridge: A Newbury & Hobbes Investigation. Finished 10/28/14.

The Steampunk genre and movement appeals to me, but I keep holding back because it feels like it will turn into an addictive time-suck that will pull me far deeper than just reading the novels.  Suddenly, I’ll be going to maker fairs and dressing in lots of metal-studded leather.  I just don’t have that kind of time.  This is also why I rarely play video games and don’t drive a motorcycle.  Still, I ran across this book at Books, Inc. in Palo Alto and was so interested that I found myself reading it while walking down El Camino Real on my way to a dinner.  For Sherlock Holmes lovers as well as Steampunks, this is great fun.  I also read the sequel immediately thereafter (see next entry) and a cluster of free short stories on Mann’s website.  Like Ben Aaronovitch, Mann is a Doctor Who alum.  I’ll read more of this series eventually.

Mann, George.  The Osiris Ritual: A Newbury & Hobbes Investigation.  Finished 11/6/14.

Scalzi, John.  Lock In. Finished 11/16/14.

Fascinating notion about telepresence for quadriplegics (a reductive description, I admit) as background for a compelling near-future science fiction adventure story.  Scalzi’s voice is the closest to a 21st century Heinlein that I’ve found, particularly with the Old Man’s War series.

Bach, Rachel.  Fortune’s Pawn. (Paradox Book 1.) Finished 11/22/14.

IO9 compared this to Lois McMaster Bujold’s work, and since she is my favorite living science fiction writer I immediately bought the first one.  Bujold it ain’t, but it’s not-bad space opera.  One key difference (literature geek spoiler alert) is that while Bujold practices Austen-like free indirect discourse, Bach’s narrative is first person, which is harder to carry off if you’re not practicing the skaz a la Mark Twain in Huck Finn.  I really like how Bach’s protagonist is a kick-ass woman mercenary soldier, but I wish the writing was better.

Catmull, Ed.  Creativity, Inc. Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration. Finished 11/29/14.

Rishad and Renny both put this on lists of influential books, and I loved every page both as a Pixar fan and as a consultant who watches businesses get in the way of their own success time and time again.  I managed creatives for many years, and wish I had this book on my desk when I started. Don’t miss. Like Adam Grant’s book, this one will stick with and help any business leader.

Powers, Tim.  Earthquake Weather. Finished 12/22/14.

See above note on Powers’ Expiration Date.  I was delighted to discover that Earthquake Weather was a quasi-sequel, because that made it easier to get over my usual 50 page learning curve with Powers.

Connelly, Michael.  The Burning Room: A Harry Bosch Novel. Finished 12/29/14.

My last completed book of 2014, which I finished on a plane this Monday.  Is there anybody who doesn’t love these books?  Connelly seems to be easing Bosh towards retirement or a dramatic death, and while I’m eager to see how it all ends I despair at the notion of a fictional Los Angeles without Harry Bosch solving crimes in it.

Looking forward to 2015: I’m currently reading four books that I hope to finish in January or February:

Daniel J. Levitin’s Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload.

Susan L. Smalley and Diana Winston’s Fully Present: The Science, Art, and Practice of Mindfulness.

(After I finish these two, I’m ambitious to dive into Daniel Goleman’s new Focus, which seems to be along similar lines to both of these.)

James H. Carrott and Brian David Johnson’s Vintage Tomorrows: A Historian And A Futurist Journey Through Steampunk Into The Future of Technology.

And although I haven’t read it, I picked up Lamentation, the sixth Matthew Shardlake novel by C.J. Sansom in London. If you want murder mysteries set in the same time as Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell books, don’t miss this excellent series. 

Any must-reads for the coming year?  Please share in comments below…

In Praise of Atul Gawande’s “The Checklist Manifesto”

I first smacked my forehead (ouch!) against a wall of decision fatigue when I was the Editor in Chief of iMedia Connection (a daily trade journal covering a different collision between marketing and technology). The best part of editing involves coaxing order from mess, making points pointier and helping writers to say what they want to say. The part that makes the days long is having to make a lot of decisions that matter in the moment but not in the long run: yes, let’s run with that one, the other one, and, oh wait, did that thing we’ve been waiting for come in? Editing — like management — is an endless series of arbitrary decisions, but somebody’s gotta pick and that’s the EIC.

I wouldn’t feel my decision fatigue until lunch. If we were heading out for a group lunch, the editorial staff would look to me. “You’re the boss, so where do you want to go for lunch?” Something in my hungry stomach would sink and I’d chose a place. Eventually, I changed my response. “I’m happy to pay for lunch, but I’ve made dozens of decisions already today.” I’d then point at one of the editors. “You pick the place. Nobody is allowed to complain.”

That was years ago, and in the interim — even though I’m no longer in that job — the scope and number of decisions I have to make each day has grown. Email vexes me in particular: do I check it when I first wake up? If I do, then I risk falling down a rabbit hole for the rest of the day. If I don’t, then I might miss something important. On top of that, the number of things bleeping at me, vibrating and waving their electronic hands like importunate fifth graders who know the answer to a question, keeps increasing year after year. I joined Ello because I was curious, for example, but now it’s another damned thing to check.

Greg McKeown’s remarkable book Essentialism helped me to recognize some of this and to intervene in my own behavior, but with smart phones breaking down all barriers our environment no longer does the work it used to do to help us know who we are at a given moment and what we’re supposed to be doing or not doing.

It’s not just me.

For the past dozen years or more I’ve been reading books tracing the same picture: life is getting evermore complicated. And, even though the human brain is the most sophisticated and powerful comprehension machine in the world, we just can’t keep up with the onslaught of information coming from new gadgets, screens, media and the increase in chatter from the old ones like radio, TV, books and the like. These are books with titles like Chaos, Frontiers of Complexity, Think Twice: Thin Ice, but also other books like Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me), Predictably Irrational, and Thinking Fast and Slow.

Like the old saying about how people complain about the weather but nobody does anything about it, most of these books were of the point and exclaim variety rather than being helpful. “Look at how irrational we are!” “Look at how things appear chaotic but actually have hidden patterns of order!” “Look at how you can never make a smart decision, but don’t give up!”

On the other side of the bookstore (when I can find one), the self-help books don’t help much. They’re too involved in a method to which I must enslave myself before seeing any benefit. I can Get Things Done, but only if I start managing endless lists that suck up a ton of time. I can Hack my Life (yuck) but that involves having a gadget or twist tie for everything. Often, when I read these books I feel like I’ve just shelled out twenty bucks for a commercial for the author’s consultancy.

All this is why I’m excited by Atul Gawande’s 2010 book, “The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right,” which I read in a day. Gawande is a globetrotting Harvard Medical School surgeon who works with the World Health Organization and writes for the New Yorker.

Gawande is intimidatingly smart and eloquent with an eye for evocative detail, but he didn’t write a book about himself. Instead, it’s a passionate defense of the simple checklist as a tool for embracing and mastering the complicated tasks in front of us day to day.

Wait, didn’t I just backhand David Allen’s list-oriented Getting Things Done approach a few paragraphs ago? (Answer: yes.) How is Gawande different?

First, The Checklist Manifesto isn’t a self-help book. It doesn’t have a handy appendix that helps you to create your own list, nor does it advertise how there are other books in the series that you can buy, or how you can hire Gawande as an efficiency expert to make your business run better (you can’t, although my sense of the author is that he would probably come up with a referral for you if you asked).

Second and more importantly, The Checklist Manifesto isn’t about self-help at all. It’s not about individuals doing things, it’s about how groups of people working together can work together better, and how empowering the group is more important than empowering an individual… even if the individual is the boss, like a surgeon, editor or CEO.

This is different than crowd-sourcing (another raft of books I’ve read in recent years) where trusting to the mass can reveal information uncloaked by individual or observer bias.

Instead, this is about teams working in environments of massively overlapping subspecialization. We have lots of technologies that help us to track and manage the what of collaboration, but surprisingly few to help us with the who.

That’s where the checklist comes in.

Here’s an example that Gawande articulates from skyscraper construction when he talks with a man named Finn O’Sullivan about two lists in O’Sullivan’s field office. The first list is the microscopically detailed construction schedule:

But the list on O’Sullivan’s other wall revealed an entirely different philosophy about power and what should happen to it when you’re confronted with complex, nonroutine problems– such as what to do when a difficult, potentially dangerous, and unanticipated anomaly suddenly appears on the fourteenth floor of a thirty-two-story skyscraper under construction. The philosophy is that you push the power of decision making out to the periphery and away from the center. You give people the room to adapt, based on their experience and expertise. All you ask is that they talk to one another and take responsibility. That is what works. (pages 72 to 73)

Gawande’s vision of the checklist isn’t merely another device (albeit a simple one) to outsource our increasing cognitive burden somewhere else. Instead, The Checklist Manifesto puts that device into the moments where tasks move from one person to another. It puts interaction at the heart of a project, not at the periphery.

For anybody working as a member of a team (and this pretty much means everybody), managing a group or leading a company, The Checklist Manifesto will help you to rethink how to collaborate to enhance the work at hand and avoid avoidable mistakes.

It’s also a spritely read with terrific stories.