CES 2017 for Brands: a Skeptical Review

Most years at CES you can spot me leading tours, and most years after the show is over I sit down to ponder what I made of it all, what the pundits got right and what they missed.

While in past years I’ve given presentations on these things, this year I wrote it up for my friends at The Ascendant Network– private to their online group until today.

You can find the PDF here.

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!

Amazon’s Robot Bodega

Don’t miss this important piece from The Verge, which gives great context around this promotional video about Amazon Go, the robot bodega:

As The Verge captures, there are no cashiers and no checkout lines: you grab what you want and just go.

At the moment, there are human stockers at the Amazon Go beta in Seattle, but that seems temporary as Amazon historically has used robots wherever it can to reduce costs and add efficiency.

Neither the video nor The Verge engage with whether or not Amazon Go follows Amazon.com’s normal practice of being intensely price competitive.  In other words, are the prices at Amazon Go the same, cheaper or more expensive than the human-powered bodega at the corner? Answer: probably cheaper.

This is important because if I’m right about the prices that skews everything about Amazon Go as an experiment.  Shoppers are highly price sensitive in many (but not all) contexts, particularly with CPG.

If Amazon Go is cheaper than the local bodega or 7/11, then this is bad news for those local shops.

Mom and Pop markets will now have big box Walmart with its supply chain strong arm tactics chomping away at their existence from one side and Amazon Go eating its way into the middle from the other.

More importantly, the human-to-human interactions that characterize most grocery shopping today at the cash register evaporate in the face of this frictionless but also emotionless interaction. (This reminds me of Erica Jong’s zipless fuck from Fear of Flying.)

All things being equal, we tend to go with the cheaper option. However, at issue here is what we count among all the things.

What aspects of the shopping experience are in our consideration sets when we go to the store?

For high consideration items, perhaps we want a skilled salesperson to guide us in concert with the research we do on our phones in the store or on our computers before we leave the house.

But for low consideration items like groceries, it’s easy to discount the identity-formation supporting energy that comes with going to the same store regularly, seeing the same people at the checkout line, chatting with the fellow customers — some of whom are friends — that you happen to meet.

This sort of identity-formation isn’t the kind we seek deliberately, like a college or a job or a neighborhood where the houses are the right size and the schools are good: it’s the kind that happens as a matter of course after we make those bigger choices.

Until things like Amazon Go show up on our mental horizons.

By virtue of its very presence in our cognitive landscape, Amazon Go requires us to make a conscious decision to go to the human powered bodega in order to be part of a community… this is a new decision, one that requires us to spend part of our limited daily allotment of decision-making energy.

When it comes to buying books, I frequently vote with my dollar and spend a little bit more at independent bookstores like Powell’s to keep them in existence, although I’m also a frequent orderer at Amazon.

But when I’m in a hurry to grab lunch or need milk before I collect my kids at school, will I think through how that purchase will keep my local market in business?

I’d like to say yes, but I might be lying.

First Thoughts on Amazon’s Echo and Alexa

Based in large part on my friend Jeff Minsky’s enthusiast endorsement, I bought the Amazon Echo device that comes with its voice-activated, Siri-like, AI digital helper named Alexa.  “This is a no-brainer,” Jeff said.  “If nothing else it’s a terrific wireless speaker for under $200, and it does so much more.”

I unboxed Echo on Wednesday, downloaded the iPhone app, plugged it in and had it running in minutes.  Jeff is right about the speaker: it has a great sound and fills up even my (no pun intended) echo-filled living room. 

Here are my first thoughts about the Echo and Alexa, its successes, missed opportunities, and where I see it going.

Surprise and Delight: The Beatles

As I did the morning dishes, my first request was, “Alexa, play The Beatles.”  Seconds later I heard “Long, Long, Long” from The White Album.  Wow!

Over the course of the next few minutes of puttering and tidying, I heard a news briefing from NPR, skipped through a bunch of other music, and also discovered that every CD or MP3 I’d purchased in my 18 years of Amazon.com membership was available to Alexa… and this is quite a bit.  I didn’t even realize that I had a music library outside of the Spotify-like, free-with-Amazon Prime music service.

Then — more surprise, more delight — a query of mine revealed that Alexa also has access to all my Kindle books… and she has a nice reading voice.  Within moments, Alexa was reading Michael Winberg’s It Will Be Awesome if They Don’t Screw it Up book about 3D printing and IP law.  I’ve experienced earlier algorithmic reading of text, and it was no fun: robotic voices with no cadence and a ton of mispronounced words.  By contrast, Alexa is smooth and winning.  Does she measure up against a professional actor performing a text?  By no means.  But for simple, “what’s this book about?” curiosity she’s fine… it’s a Herb Simon satisficing exercise, rather than a premium audio-book optimization.

Alexa is an example of what Jeff Minsky calls the “Ambient Internet.”

Even more so than with the always-in-your-pocket smart phone, having hands-free Echo on the kitchen counter reduces friction between my desire to search something and performing the search.  This is even lower friction than my experience with the Apple Watch, because with the Watch I have to raise my wrist to my face with my left hand and push a button with my right hand to wake it up and have it start listening… although Siri on my iPhone wakes up to “Hey, Siri.” 

Not having to move a muscle and still being able to search something is powerful, even seductive.

Last night, for example, my 10 year old son wanted to go to a barbecue joint for dinner.  So I asked Alexa where the best ribs in Portland are.  Alexa immediately recommended Reo’s Ribs, which is zesty and tangy (it used to be our neighborhood joint before it moved about seven miles further away).  Alexa couldn’t manage to suggest other options (although to be fair I only asked her for the best ribs in my query and, like Siri, she has a limited ability to understand followup questions), so I trotted to my computer and to Google to find a closer joint.

Dinner was delicious. 

There’s a down side to the Ambient Internet, which is that it accelerates my technology-induced quasi-Attention Deficit Disorder.  Having a bunch of devices that can deliver tasty, Doritos-like nibbles of information doesn’t help me buckle down and focus on pressing tasks at hand. 

Likewise, having a cybernetic pal eager to tell me about things happening in the world while I do dishes gets in the way of either mindful attention to task (even if the task is dishes) or mindless day-dreaming that often sparks a creative insight. 

Many smart folks have written extensively about how frictionless 24/7/365 connectivity makes us reactive and superficial rather than proactive and deep (see Nicholas Carr’s 2011 book The Shallows for one good example), and I don’t need to make that argument again here except insofar as how adding another connected device, Echo, throws more cognitive Doritos into my info-diet rather than veggies.

Brief Digression on Cyber-Security: I’m not, in this post, addressing either the Big Brother Question (Amazon is always listening, tracking everything, and using that information to take over the world or maybe just help the NSA) or the Skynet/Robot Apocalypse Question (Alexa will fuse with Siri, find Ultron, and then decide to eliminate the infestation of humans ruining this perfectly good planet). End of Digression.

But what about the shopping?  I have yet to ask Alexa to add something to my Amazon list, but I have no doubt that Alexa’s frictionlessness will aid purchase… and if Alexa continues to live in the kitchen then that will probably hurt my local supermarket if I wind up ordering dishwashing soap through Amazon because I just ask for it when I’m running out rather than having to pull out my phone to add it to the shopping list. 

Missing: a battery.  It’s only by using a device that you see the presumptions that the creators had while designing it.  With Echo, the designer presumed that once you picked a spot for the device it would stay in that spot.  This is a problem as I’m working to figure out where Alexa should be in my house, since every time I unplug the device it powers down and takes a minute-plus to reboot when I plug it into a different socket in another room.  I find this minute-plus reboot time vexing… and it doesn’t fit with the general frictionlessness of Echo. 

A backup battery that would keep the Echo going for a half hour would be useful.

But the lack of a battery also suggests that Amazon has more pervasive ambitions for Alexa.  From the start, I asked myself, “why both Echo and Alexa?”  Why not just call the device Alexa?

The reason, I think, is that Alexa has a bigger future footprint than the Echo.

The Echo is just a speaker, but pretty soon users will find themselves chatting with Alexa on their phones, on their computers and tablets when shopping on Amazon.  And judging from the Ford SYNC integration with Echo that I saw at this year’s CES, Amazon also wants us to chat with Alexa when we’re driving around.  “Alexa, please add Tide to my shopping list,” I’ll be able to say as I drive around.

While Alexa is great, she is no “Jarvis” from Iron Man and The Avengers.  One disappointing thing about Alexa is her half-hearted connectivity to other services.  Yes, you can play your Spotify tunes out of the Alexa speaker, but in order to do so you have to stream Spotify from your phone (or some other device) into Alexa.  So you can’t ask Alexa for a particular playlist or to search Spotify for that rare Bill Evans tune.

The Achilles heel of most connected technologies is having the mobile phone as a tether: this is as true of Echo as it is of the Apple Watch.   

Finally, another designer presumption that a few days of use has turned up: Echo was designed for somebody who lives alone, or at least for a single user.  Here’s a revelatory snippet from the Amazon page on Echo and Alexa:

Alexa—the brain behind Echo—is built in the cloud, so it is always getting smarter. The more you use Echo, the more it adapts to your speech patterns, vocabulary, and personal preferences. And because Echo is always connected, updates are delivered automatically.

This engineering mindset parallels that of the smart phone: one user per device.

But I live with three other humans and a dog.  While the dog’s shopping needs don’t require an AI helper, my son — who is entranced with Alexa — has trouble making himself understood because Alexa has adapted to my voice. 

This is a pervasive problem with shared services.  Since my entire family uses my Amazon Prime account, Prime thinks I suffer from multiple personality disorder since the suggested purchases run across four idiosyncratic people’s interests.  I always know when, for example, my teenaged daughter has been makeup shopping on Amazon because the Amazon banner ads that stalk me across the web shift.

My Netflix recommendations are even worse since we started using the service before the company enabled different profiles.  I have no interest in “Cupcake Wars,” but Netflix disagrees.

In a future post, I’ll write more about Echo/Alexa’s potential impact on business, shopping and branding.

[Cross-posted on Medium.]

Don’t Miss Adam Grant’s new book “Originals”

Of the many compliments that I can give to Adam Grant’s remarkable new book Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, a rare one is that I will have to read it again soon.  Grant is an unusual social scientist in that he’s also a terrific writer, a gem-cutting anecdote selector of real-life stories that illuminate his points with a breezy, swallow-it-in-a-gulp momentum so I found myself racing through the book with a smile on my face.  I didn’t even take notes!  That doesn’t happen.  So, I’m going to read it again, slower, pencil in hand.
In the meantime my first tour through Originals haunts my waking life, an insightful shadow nodding in at unexpected moments— as a professional, a thinker and as a parent.
For example, when an academic friend told me she was trying to salvage as much as she could from her recent articles to put into a book she needs to write for tenure, I replied, “Don’t do that. You are prolific and have tons of ideas: only chase the ones that still excite you.”  That’s lifted straight from Grant, who talks about genius as a surprisingly quantitative endeavor: it’s not that creative masters have better ideas than the rest of us, instead they have have a much greater number of ideas so the odds go up that some of those ideas are terrific.
One of Grant’s opening anecdotes explores a non-causal correlation between success in a call center and an employee’s decision to change the default web browser on her or his computer.  If the employee switched away from Internet Explorer to Firefox or Chrome (this isn’t hot-off-the-presses data, I think), then that switch demonstrated a kind of “how can I make this better?” mindset that led to higher job performance.  I’ve thought about my own default choices repeatedly since then. noticing how sometimes I work around the technology when it’s too much bother to make the technology serve me.  Looking at the pile of remote controls near the entertainment center in my living room is one example: I haven’t bothered to research, buy and program one universal remote.
Grant’s notion of strategic procrastination has also proved actionable faster than I might have predicted.  I’ve often been a pressure-cooker worker, mulling things over for a long simmering period before rolling up my sleeves.  Grant has persuaded me, though, that getting started first and then taking a mulling break at the halfway point leads to higher quality outcomes, and I’ve used this to my advantage — and the advantage of the work — on a research project that is taking up most of my time.
Originals isn’t perfect but it’s always provocative.  Another phenomenon that Grant explores is the correlation between birth order and creativity, with younger children — particularly the youngest of many children — often becoming more successful as ground-breaking creatives because they inhabit a different social niche in their families than rule-making parents and rule-abiding oldest children (of which I am one).  Grant’s birth order argument focuses so much on the nuclear family that I wonder if it’s too Western, too settled, too suburban.  My mother, for example, grew up in a close, hodgepodge, overlapping community of immigrant parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and oodles of cousins.  Her closest peer group were her cousins, with whom she roamed her city neighborhood unsupervised.  The cousins, with whom she is still close decades later, influenced her as much if not more than her sister, eight years her senior and a more distant presence in her childhood than, say, the presence of my 14 year old daughter in my 10 year old son’s day-to-day in our little suburb.  Still, Grant’s birth order research has made me rethink some of my own parenting choices with my older child.
Perhaps my only real complaint with Originals is that I want some additional product that will help me to apply its powerful insights in my everyday life.  As I gobbled up the book, I wanted something like a deck of playing cards with distilled versions of the chapters that I might rifle through to help sharpen my thinking… something like the Oblique Strategies or Story Cubes.
I was a big fan of Grant’s first book, Give and Take, and Originals is just as good if not better.  It was a pleasure to read the first time, and I’m eager to dive in once again… perhaps I’ll make my own deck of helpful playing cards using my friend John Willshire’s product, the Artefact Cards.

Don’t Call Them “Consumers”

What you call people matters.  It tells them what you really think about them.

Here’s an example: years ago my friend Jules shared how her Mom would call for her Dad in a never-changing escalation of urgency and decline of affection: “Sweetheart!” she’d trill, followed by, “Honey?” and then ending with “Bill!!” 

The equation worked this way:

“Sweetheart!” = “Hello, loving husband, it is I, your loving wife, checking in this happy morning.”

“Honey?” = “Where has that man taken himself off to, and is he perhaps forgetting that I’ve asked him to accomplish something this morning?”

“Bill!” = “Move it old man— I’ve got shit to do!!”

In three words Jules’ Mom went from an affectionate to a functional relationship with her husband.  Fortunately, relationships are dynamic and tend to move in both directions.

This matters for marketers and their attendants (agencies, media) because when you talk about those folks who either already buy your stuff or may one day buy your stuff as “consumers” then you have reduced your relationship with these people to a functional one in which their only job is to consume your stuff so that you can make money, then make new stuff, and then sell that stuff to the consumers also.

If you are an old-style marketer who is using one-way pipes like TV and print to firehose impressions at a somewhat resigned population, then you’re probably OK doing this because you’re just talking and not pretending to listen… sort of like Jules’ Dad.  (This may sound like I disapprove of such messaging, but I don’t: it’s honest and practical and sometimes the ads are entertaining.)

However, if you’re a marketer using social media to create so-called “friends” or if you’re content-curious and trying your hand as a publisher, then the moment you use the word “consumer” then you’ve proven that you are a liar.

They aren’t your friends.  You don’t care what the people on the other end of the communication think or how they feel.  They are just consumers, and you’re saying, “shut up and eat.”

Now, for the most part people don’t want to have relationships with brands.  They don’t want to be friends with brands.  They don’t care about the brand behind the products they buy and use except insofar as those brands save them valuable cognitive effort when shopping (so they can go back to playing with their phones) or save them money at checkout.

But that still doesn’t make them consumers.  At zero moments do people welcome marketers efforts to paint them into a corner where they are consumers.

So, if you’re a marketer reading this, then join me in vowing not to call the people who pay your bills “consumers.”  It’s just rude.

BUT WHAT DO I CALL THEM? I hear your plaintive cry.  Much ink has been spilled on this question. 

Marketers don’t want to call people “customers” because they reserve that label for the folks who have already bought something (not that they treat customers any better than consumers.)  This is bullshit but at least it’s logically consistent.

My friend Joe Jaffe and I got into a spat many years ago when we disagreed about whether to call the online version of these folks “users” or not (I thought yes; Joe thought it made them sound like addicts… and this was before Facebook made us all into genuine addicts).  Another friend, Grant McCracken, once suggested calling these people “amplifiers,” but I think this is too hopeful a term as most folks decline to amplify.

When you’re talking about folks who do or might buy your product in a social media or content marketing context, then I suggest using “audience,” since even though they don’t have much of a voice at least we credit audiences with having brains, opinions and feet with which they can vote.

If a marketer is talking about people who are actively doing something, then I suggest “participants,” because that label recognizes their efforts— whether positive or negative.

And if you’re fire hosing messages, then I suggest you talk about the collection of drenched bodies as people— since that’s what we all are.

Just don’t call them consumers.

[Cross-posted with iMedia Connection.]

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.]

Pragmatics: you can only walk through one door at a time

Sharon washed up at the table next to me during a post-conference dinner here in Bergen and opened up over beer and reindeer steaks. She’s a bright young woman about to finish a Masters in finance and economics who doesn’t know how to approach the post-graduation void.

Sharon started reeling off different directions and opportunities, but I could see she wasn’t energized by any of them.

That’s when I shared my practical way to chop overgrown forests of life decisions into mental lumber out of which you can build thoughts and plans. Then, my conversation with Sharon recurred and recombined into conversations with Diane and Adam and Abby,* hence this piece.

At every life transition you’ll stand in front of three unlocked doors, but just like with real doors you can only walk through one of these metaphors at a time.

The doors are What, Where or Who.

What: you know the job you want or the industry in which you want to find that first gig to lead onwards and, with luck and late nights, upward. If What is ascendant is your astrology then you don’t care where you live or who is living there with you. If you want to be a baseball journalist, you go where you find an opportunity even if that takes you to a Podunk town you can’t even find on Google Maps without zooming, where nobody has ever heard the word “barista,” but where somebody will pay you to cover the minor league feeder team (among a bunch of other less tasty assignments).

Where: you don’t care that much about how you’ll make a living, although selling sex toys door to door is out because you get tired of explaining what goes where. Sure, you want to have friends around, but the players change while the stage remains the same. It’s Seattle that has captured your heart: the hills, the water front, the coffee culture. You like seeing dead trout hurled around Pike Place Market. You’re a Where person. Every town’s got some of these folks; they’re the “Mayors” of different sub-communities.

Who: it’s not that you don’t have standards about what you do to keep ramen on the table, and there are places that make your underarms itch if you even think about living there. But you’ve made the big choice about Who you’re going to live with and be buried next to after you die, and that person has a What or a Where pulling him or her, so you’re going along for the ride. (This time. It’ll be your turn to be What or Where later because that’s fair.)

The trick when you’re looking at three different doors is to be honest with yourself. Right now, are you a What, a Where or a Who?

The problem is that being honest with yourself sucks.  It’s really really hard.

It’s much easier to listen to all the other voices: your friends, your family, your teachers, your vague sense of what people like you do with their lives at certain stages.

A good test to see if you’re lying to yourself is to listen for the word “should” in your internal monolog.  “Should” coaxes you to turn the wrong door handle.  Sometimes.  Yeah, you should pay your bills, and if you’ve got kids they come first.  I’m not talking about the brush-your-teeth-twice-each-day should.  I’m talking about continuing to practice law even though you hate it just because you got a law degree.

Don’t be a ventriloquist’s dummy.  Which door is important?

I used to think I was a What.  In fact, I was so convinced I was a What that I spent a decade getting a doctorate in Shakespeare studies because the plan was to teach undergraduates about Shakespeare no matter where that happened or how little I’d be paid to do so.

Whoops.

Then I thought I was a Where, moving back to Los Angeles after grad school to work in Hollywood then in the Internet.  (Look, Mom, I have practical business skillz that feed the kids— who woulda thunk it?)

But Where wasn’t true either.

Turns out, for the last few years I’ve been a Who.  My wife Kathi wanted to move to Oregon, and then I found myself surrounded by pierced hipsters sipping micro-roast coffee.

Then, Kathi got a Fulbright to study in Bergen, Norway (#wet, #dark, #expensive, but #fjords and #happywife), and here I am for the school year.

Anybody want some reindeer sausage?

I haven’t always been a Who: we wound up in Los Angeles after grad school because at that time I was a Where and Kathi was the Who.  We’ll switch roles again and again.

That’s another thing I’ve found myself sharing with people like Sharon and Diane and Adam and Abby: after you pick a door and walk for a while, you’re going to find yourself standing in front of another three doors.

If you want to experience paralysis, then ask yourself what you want to do with the rest of your life.  That’s like asking somebody if they prefer to die in a ballooning mishap or from brain cancer: it’s a long way down either way. 

I prefer the question, “what do you want to do NEXT?” 

Pick a door.  Start walking.

* Sharon, Diane, Adam and Abby are all pseudonyms.

[Cross-posted on Medium.]

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.