Reviews of Books Read in 2011
Disclosure. We are
members of the
Associate's Program. You can click on the logo at the left to go to Amazon.com's home
page. Alternatively, you can click on the logo following the review for a specific
book and go to the purchase page for that particular book on Amazon. We will receive a
percentage of any purchases you make through Amazon.
Reviewed December 31 by Jon. The Submission was billed as the "ultimate 9/11 novel". I read it with that expectation and it was a disappointment. He book is about a design contest for he 9/11 memorial. The winning design, it turns out, was submitted b a Muslim American. The book is primarily about tensions surrounding the submission. It was very New York. I found the characters very one-dimensional and the story thin. There was some promise to the premise but the book was far from the ultimate 9/11 novel, it was mildly entertaining but a bit tedious to read.
Why Success Always Starts With Failure
reviewed December 30 by Jon. The fundamental premise of adapt is that top down central planning does not work. A more successful pattern is trial and error or deliberate experimentation. Harford uses examples from the military (Iraq), financial crisis, and various kinds of accidents (e.g. deep water Horizon). Harford makes the case for creating experiments, bounding them so failure is not catastrophic, and then learning from failure to improve. The lessons in the book are not particularly profound (although not often well-practiced), but the argument is well articulated and makes sense.
Voyage of the Beagle
reviewed December 29 by Jon. I read this to get a perspective on the Galapagos. unfortunately, there is only one chapter devoted to the Galapagos - and most of it was stuff I already knew from the trip. It was interesting to read about Darwin on some of the same beaches and doing some of the same things almost 200 years prior to our visit. Darwin traverses South America in the opposite order we did, starting in Brazil and working his way around Tierra Del Fuego up to Chile and Peru. It was interesting to hear his perspective on geography, people, and flora/fauna. The rather ponderous writing style was a bit tedious.
11/22/63: A Novel
Reviewed Dec 25 by Jon. I have not read Stephen King in a while. I'm not very excited about slasher supernatural books, but I have read some of his pat novels and liked his writing. 11/22/63 is one that I did like and shows why King is a good writer. The fundamental premise of the book is about a guy from the present who is shown a wormhole back in time. He goes back in time to the late 1950s. he doesn't this several times as a test and proves he can change history. Each time is a reset (previous changes are erased). Ultimately he goes back to try to prevent Lee Harvey Oswald from assassinating John F. Kennedy. He stalks Oswald and gets entangled in a life and romance in the 1960s. The book is long and the premise implausible, but it is well written and entertaining. I read on sabbatical. It was a perfect story to keep me engaged during travel. Lots of interesting historical stuff about Oswald and some good 50s and 60s nostalgia, too. Worth a read.
Against The Machine: How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation,
Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming the Economy.
Reviewed December 20, by Jon. This is a short Kindle book which makes the case that digital technology can and will structurally transform economies. They say that we need to compete with machines not against them. The logical parallel is that we need to be sufficiently educated to use digital technology effectively. Not a terribly original argument, but well laid out with lots of supporting data.
Hayek: The Clash That Defined Modern Economics
Reviewed December 16 by Jon. I read this book because I wanted a crisp explanation of the two respective economic philosophies of John Maynard Keynes and Friedrich Hayek. The beginning of the book was a rather tedious biographical sketch of both noted economists. Keynes was well established and accepted whey Hayek came on the scene. There was way too much tedium at the beginning of the book, but the end was better in describing the impact of the respective theories on the world - particularly US politics. The net conclusion is that Hayek has won many theoretical discussions but that governments act in a classically Keynesian manner. This book is OK, but tedious. The reader who wants to more expeditiously understand the difference between Keynes and Hayek would do better to watch Fear the Boom and Bust, the Keynes Hayek Rap Anthem video.
Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress - And a Plan to Stop It
Reviewed December 9, by Jon. Lessig believes (like many citizens, myself included) that the U.S. Congress no longer serves the will of the citizens because it is beholden to special interests. He articulates how legislators live in a gift economy that creates obligations. The framers of the constitution (and subsequent law) have made an exchange economy illegal but the gift economy is alive and well. Lessig posits that the people are not bad but the system is corrupt. He has very specific remedies that he describes and a number of strategies to address the problem. Although he is a liberal, he feels that the corruption of Congress is a bipartisan issue. Lessig covers a lot of ground - including the intentions of the framers of the Constitution. I have heard Lessig speak and he feels that campaign finance reform is the most important thing we can do to restore Congress to the people. He just may be right.
Target Geronimo: The Inside Story of the Mission to Kill Osama Bin Laden
Reviewed December 7, by Jon. This is a much better inside account of the Navy Seal mission to kill Bin Laden than The Hunt for Bin Ladin, although it, too is a bit hastily written. There are a few errors (e.g. locating the 1998 Kenya US Embassy bombing in Mombasa rather than Nairobi) which make the rest of the narrative a bit suspect, but generally it is a good account.The book starts with the obligatory history of the Navy Seals and description of BUDS training. I have read this several times before. Aside from the actual account of the raid, the two most interesting things in the book were an account of how the Seals killed the pirates who took the captain of the Maersk Alabama hostage off the coast of Somalia and a fairly detailed history of the conflict in the Middle East. The author maintains that a dictum of the Seals is to know your enemy. He does a good job of describing both the historical causes of tensions in the Middle East and Bin Laden's background and role. The heart of the book is at the end, in which the author has a very detailed and credible account of the actual raid. It is unclear how he got the details but his depiction seems more credible than The Hunt for Bin Ladin. No doubt, as time passes, we will learn more about the raid and the record will be further elaborated. In the meantime, this account is well written and gripping.
Playbook: The Right Fights Back
Reviewed December 2 by Jon. The Right Fights Back is a Kindle short book by Politico. It is partially used to fund Politico. The book is a series of insider vignettes of the Republican campaign. It provides a lot of insight as to the thinking, motivation, and actions of the various GOP candidates. It is kind of a gossip rag. It is short and lightweight - as it was intended to be - but does provide a glimpse into the life of a GOP candidate and the beliefs and approaches of the various candidates
Reviewed November 30, by Jon. I have read a number of early Steve Jobs biographies and, of course, am quite familiar with his story and impact. I found this book, however, a real inspiration. Isaacson did a fabulous job describing the person - with all of his quirks and imperfections - as well as his philosophy and the impact he had on the world. It was particularly poignant reading the book shortly after his death because I knew where the book was leading. The story showed one of the most accomplished people in the world but we also saw the human side and imperfections. We saw Jobs insecurity and his existential angst as he saw his impending death. Isaacson's book is partially a book about Jobs but also a book about business. He describes the thinking that led to Apple's phenomenal success. It all seems so simple in retrospect. Seeing the contradictions that make up Steve Jobs really raises a few questions - what would he have done had he lived another 30 years? How will Apple and other carry on his legacy?
It was fascinating to see how close (although competitive) Jobs and Bill Gates were. His clear focus on design, simplicity, and the intersection of technology and humanity were clear. Also his absolutely relentless focus on products can getting them absolutely perfect. Jobs leaves a huge legacy in his products, his company, and his world view. Steve Jobs, the book, adds to the legacy by explaining - at least to some degree - why Jobs was who he was.
The West and The Rest
Reviewed November 26, by Jon. Harvard historian Niall Ferguson claims that Western Europe (followed by the US) pulled ahead of other cultures because of the rise of six "killer apps"
He explains why these led the west to dominate and opens the possibility that other cultures can absorb them as well. Ferguson is a bit more conservative than my tastes but he makes pretty cogent arguments. He writes a chapter about each killer app and has a sub-topic embedded in the main topic - e.g. clothing in consumerism and Protestantism in work ethic. Civilization is a good complement to The World in 2050 and Why the West Rules (for now) - but since Ferguson is a historian, he attributes success more to cultural factors and less geographic. This book provides good context as to what has made us successful and is a counter to theories of "exceptionalism"
to Work: Why we need smart government for a strong economy
Reviewed November 17, by Jon. Back to Work is Bill Clinton's manifesto on what needs to be done to get the economy moving again and, as a side effect, restore faith in our political leadership. He describes a 30 year period - beginning with Ronald Regan in 1980 of the vilification of government. Clinton believes the opposite - that government has a proper role in society - and says it is time to reverse the vilification of government and use government intelligently to drive the common good. He said he was appalled after talking to voters during the mid-term elections at how misinformed they are and wrote the book to shed light on policy and the issues. The book is a very lucid and rational description of progressive government policies. It actually explains them quite well - both plainly and with sufficient detail. It is almost a platform for the progressive party. The only slight criticism I might offer is that he portrays the policies of his administration almost without fail as correct and successful. I'm not suggesting that they were not but the book has just a hint too much self-congratulation. An easy and interesting read.
3.0: Global Prosperity and How to Achieve it
Reviewed November 10, by Jon. World 3.0 is a follow on book to Redefining Global Strategy, and takes Ghemawat's ideas about global business to a broader level of public policy as well as business. He defines world 1.0 as a preglobalized world in which national boundaries are strong and countries interaction with each other is minimal. World 2.0 is a completely flat world without constraint - which is a theory but not really reality - and has created the notion of an unfettered and unregulated free market. World 3.0 - which he thinks we will inhabit has both national boundaries and strong integration between countries. The key issue is to understand the boundaries and integration - because they are not equal. Ghemawat applies the CAGE framework he uses for analyzing global business to public policy and global interactions in general. A nice addition to thinking on globalization.
Darwin Economy: Liberty, Competition, and the Common Good
Reviewed November 3, by Jon. Frank, a Cornell Economist, starts out by stating that Darwin has as much to do with free market capitalism as Adam Smith. He talks about Darwin setting the basis for competition. Overall I liked this book. It addresses three fundamental issues. First, a sober and adult economist actually discusses the economy in rational rather than ideological terms. Second, he talks about a taxation proposal to tax consumption rather than income. Third, he goes at the libertarian agenda that has driven much of right-wing economic dogma by addressing some of the theoretical underpinnings - particularly using the work of Ronald Coase from the University of Chicago - showing that there are some pretty sketchy assumptions. Overall a very good book. I saw Frank speak in San Francisco at the World Affairs Council and was impressed enough to buy and read the book. A good addition to the present economic dialog.
We Need You to Lead Us
Reviewed October 31, by Jon. This is another one of Seth Godin's hyperbolic tiny books. The fundamental thesis is that we are all members of tribes and tribes are looking for a leader therefore we should all lead. Nice thought. Not much there, there.
Reviewed October 30, by Jon. The Black Echo is a Harry Bosch novel that begins when he discovers a fellow Vietnam vet who was one of the tunnel rats flushing VietCong out of underground tunnels. It is an older novel that fills in many of the gaps in the Bosch series - for example it is where Eleanor Wish - who Bosch marries in later novels - surfaces. This is Connelley at his prime - and demonstrates high quality and engaging writing. Unlike later Connelley novels (and Cornwall and others, see below), the writing is far from formulatic. The characters are rich and the story is, for the most part, engaging. There are some nice twists and turns in the plot and one also gets a feel for LA - the classic Bosch novel. I'm a little surprised I had never read it, but am happy that I read it now.
Reviewed October 17, by Jon. One thing I have noticed about successful writers is that they get very formulaic after several successful books. Cornwall does one worse. Not only is she formulaic but this book is very hard to follow. It mostly seems to be about her own neurosis. There is, of course, a murder mystery and her role as a medical examiner. However there are a bunch of chopped up pieces - a stint at Dover Air Force Base handling bodies of returned soldiers, a mental hospital, nanobots, ... all kinds of stuff that never really knits together into a story. A really terrible book.
How Unenlightened Self Interests Undermined Democracy and Corrupted Captialism
Reviewed October 17, by Jon. The title tells it all. Smith goes into a very detailed explanation of the economic ideology behind free-market capitalism and refutes many of its basic tenants. He then goes into financial theory and does the same. He fundamentally says that ideology-driven theory is behind the financial crisis. The second half of the book goes into very detailed and very technical explanation of what happened with CDOs, derivatives, etc. I think he overstates many of his points a bit - but just a bit. If he is correct, the whole ediface of modern finance might be called into question. Given the economic situation, this certainly gives one pause. A bit opaque but interesting.
Future of Power
Reviewed October 12, by Jon. This is the second book I have read by Joseph Nye. Nye is a foreign policy expert and is one of the most often cited thinkers on foreign policy. He takes his notions of Soft Power and applies it to present day society -- attacking such issues as soft power in a multi-polar world, power applied to non-state actors (terrorists, corporations, etc), and power as applied to internet-driven societies. It is a very good read and takes some important ideas and applies them to the world we now live in. Worth reading.
Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State
Reviewed September 30, by Jon. Arkin and Priest chronicle the rise of a sprawling security and counterterrorism bureaucracy after 9/11. The book is a pretty comprehensive explanation of the various programs, agencies, consultants, and contractors put in place. It is clear that much of this government spending is hidden and unaccountable. The authors view is that much is ineffective. The only organizations they view as having much impact on Al Qaida are the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) of the US Military, and the CIA. Otherwise, most organizations set up their own intelligence and investigative wings. It appears that nobody, even those charged with running the national intelligence apparatus, knows the whole picture. The authors paint an image of sprawling, wasteful bureaucracy. If the authors chronicle is accurate, this is a great example of a political event spawning a boondoggle of government spending beyond all reason. In this case, it is spending endorsed by the right - thus damaging the credibility of those who decry liberal government spending.
Velocity: Free Your Company's Future from the Pull of the Past
Reviewed September 23, by Jon. Escape Velocity is Geoffrey Moore’s new book. In many ways it is a strategy handbook that brings together many of the perspectives, tools, and frameworks that Geoffrey and his colleague, Philip Lay, a long time friend of and consultant to Autodesk, have developed over the years. The subtitle of Escape Velocity is “free your company’s future from the pull of the past”. Thus, it is about change and renewal. Moore is an astute observer of companies – with a big focus on high tech companies and has seen and codified many of the challenges that companies face. Escape velocity is about the challenges that success brings – including the gravitational pull of a successful business and the things one has to do to escape the gravitational pull to innovate. The book starts with an über-framework called the Hierarchy of Powers. The hierarchy creates and organizational framework for the book around 5 powers:
In many ways, this book is a compendium or organization of ideas that have appeared before. What I like about it is that it begins to create a unified framework and source for the many ideas I have learned from Philip Lay over the years. Escape velocity puts them into perspective and offers a great über-framework to see how they relate and which tool to use when.To those familiar with Geoffrey Moore, this book will help bring together many of his core ideas. For those not familiar, this is a good starting point. After reading Escape Velocity, you may want to delve into some of his other books that develop some of the topics more explicitly.What I like about Moore’s work is that it is fairly accessible and pragmatic – yet has a firm grounding in management theory. Much of it sounds like common sense – and it is – but it has some intellectual rigor and years of observing real companies behind it.
Used to be Us: How America fell behind in the world it invented and how we can
Reviewed September 18, by Jon. Friedman and Mandelbaum build on Friedman's previous themes from Hot, Flat, and Crowded. They discuss four big challenges we face - globalization, the IT revolution, national deficits, and energy consumption. The books is broad and sprawling - much like Hot, Flat, and Crowded, with lots of facts and analysis - most of which are things I believe in. They address directly the denial of scientific and economic evidence that is so pervasive today. They are optimists in that they do believe that America has great advantages and can get beyond our political gridlock. One prescription they have is to create a third political party to help jolt our political process out of its polarization. The book is well worth reading - although it does drag on in places. It might benefit from some streamlining. Nevertheless I always appreciate Friedman's viewpoints - and the addition of Mandelbaum seems to be seemless and helpful.
World in 2050: Four Forces Shaping Civilization's Northern Future
Reviewed September 5, by Jon. Smith is a UCLA geographer who studies climate change and the future of the Northern regions - the arctic and northern part of the the Northern Hemisphere. Smith identifies four "forces" which he thinks will define our future -- human population growth and migration; growing demand for control over such natural resource "services" as photosynthesis and bee pollination; globalization; and climate change. The World in 2050 tries to project these things. It is interesting to know more about the north - which may have more shipping and agriculture due to climate change. The book is pretty readable and does provoke thought about an area of the world we don't think much about.
How the great recession has narrowed our futures and what to do about it.
Reviewed September 5, by Jon. Peck
compares the most recent recession to the recessions in the late 1800s and the
great depression in the 1930s and comes up with some strikingly similar
patterns. At root are a couple of things - rising income inequality and
structural shifts that leave a large percentage of middle class workers with few
prospects. I really enjoyed Pinched and read it over labor day weekend at almost
one sitting. It is a very easy read and I found Peck's analysis very cogent and
his prescriptions clear and well thought out. I wish our policy makers - or
those partisan politicians who masquerade as policy makers - would read this
book. It is a coherent explanation of what happened and what we need to do - a
mature and adult treatment of economics in a time when our leaders have
degenerated into childish bickering.
Reviewed September 5, by Jon. This
is Henry Kissinger's chronicle of the US relationship with China starting with
his negotiations for Nixon to visit China in the 70s all the way through the
present day. Kissinger also presents some historical perspective on China's
views on foreign policy. The book presents a lot of perspective on China's
desire for good relations with the U.S. as a counter to Soviet aggression. It
even goes into China's desire to be close to the U.S. as a result of their
falling out with Vietnam. Of course, it covers their views on Taiwan. One thing
that struck me is that the Chinese had to adapt to each new political
administration in the U.S. Chinese took the long view and each presidency
changed over 5000 officials so the government had to learn, each time, how to
deal with China. There were power transfers in China as well but they did not
seem so disjoint. On China correlates with a lot of other books I have read on
China and its relationship with the U.S. The book is fundamentally optimistic
about the relationship between the two countries. Certainly, Kissinger, who had
a front row seat in over 50 visits to China and through eight U.S. presidencies
- has tremendous insight into China and its views and relationship with the U.S.
Reviewed August 28, by Jon. Fatherland
is a murder mystery set in 1964 in a world where Nazi Germany won World War II
and has been in a cold war against the U.S. and the west. The protagonist is
Xavier March, a homicide investigator for the Berlin Kriminalpolizi gets
involved in a triple murder of some high Nazi officials that leads to unveiling
the secret of what Nazi Germany did to the Jews. Joseph Kennedy is the U.S.
president and the story is about the events that might destroy the Reich. The
story is OK, a bit of a candy novel. The premise - of the Germany winning WWII -
is an interesting thought experiment.
Leadership: Design, Technology, Business, Life.
Reviewed August 20, by Jon. Maeda
was recruited from a professorship at MIT to become the President of The Rhode
Island School of Design. This book is a short and simple book (following Maeda’s
views on Simplicity) about his lessons
learned as an “accidental” leader. It is a quick read, bordering on candy, but
worthwhile. It shows the challenges of leadership from the
perspective of someone who has not grown into leadership but rather been thrust
into it. Maeda is an outsider who suddenly must lead RISD, an elite academic
institution. I hear Maeda has had some challenges recently at RISD and
hope the lessons he describes in his book are serving him well through those
Lines: How Hidden Fractures Still Threaten the World Economy
Reviewed August 19, by Jon.
Rajan is a professor at the University of Chicago's Booth
School of Business and former chief economist of the IMF. I was prepared not to
like this book since Rajan comes from an institution (U of Chicago) which
promulated some of the extreme market economics that led us into the financial
crisis. I was pleasantly surprised, however, that Rajan had a very objective
view of the US and world economic situation. His approach - although a bit more
conservative than mine - is very well reasoned. He speaks of a number of "fault
lines" that led to the crisis - easy housing credit, export led emerging
economies, capital flows, a weak safety net, overstimulus, and poor
international finance governance. I found his explanations lucid and balanced
with none of the doctrinaire thinking that I expected. This book is worth
reading and does provide a reasoned center-right view of the financial
challenges. If only more people were as reasoned as Rajan.
Reviewed August 17, by Jon. Paul McEuen is a physics professor at Cornell. Spiral is about a Cornell professor mycology, Liam Connor, who was involved with a deadly fungus-based bio weapon called the Uzumaki. Uzumaki was developed as a doomsday weapon by the Japanese at the end of WWII. Connor was part of the team that found it and tried to contain it. The book is set in modern day Ithaca (and around upstate New York). One of the original Uzumaki researchers has a plot to unleash it on the world and pit the China and Japan against the U.S. This is a tech thriller. In addition to the biotech aspect, there are micro robots called microcrawlers. The book is OK as thrillers go. It was interesting to me to have a book set in Ithaca. There were lots of familiar locations and feelings about Ithaca. A good candy read.
the West Rules, For now: The patterns of history and
what they reveal about the future
Reviewed August 1, by Jon. Ian Morris is a Stanford professor who teaches history, classics, and archaeology. In this book, he develops a theory about how various parts of the world develop. In the first part, Morris demonstrates that we all came from common ancestors – so biological differences don’t account for one culture being more successful than others. He develops an index of social development based upon energy capture, urbanization (a measure of organizational ability), information processing, and the ability to make war. He then charts the index for the east and west throughout history from the ice age to the present. We see that east and west race each other and frequently trade places. Morris’s message about the future is that geography determines cultural success and there are no guarantees. He rejects the theory of cultural “lock-in” and asserts that the east is likely to past the west in this decade. The thesis of the book is fascinating and the device of a uniform social development index helps make the arguments very vivid. The historical section gets kind of tedious in the early parts but gets increasingly more interesting as we approach the modern day. Morris few of the present and immediate future ties together a lot of trends and uncertainties that I see. This is a long book that is kind of tedious in places but I liked the idea behind it.
Age of American Unreason
Reviewed July 28 by Jon. The Age of American Unreason is a
history of anti-intellectualism in America from the founding of the country to
modern day. Even in the days of founding the nation, there was a debate over
European style (liberal arts) education vs. “practical” (farming, blacksmithing,
etc) education. Jacoby covers Christian fundamentalism, pseudo-science, and the
general disregard (or contempt) for intellect in recent politics. The book is
about 5 years old and sometimes seems dated. Jacoby was a newspaper journalist
and sometimes her comments seem to be a bit retro – she seems to hold the
internet responsible for anti-intellectualism. Perhaps there is a grain of truth
there, but the other influences she cites are far more relevant. The book is a
bit ponderous but it is interesting to see the threads of anti-intellectualism
that have permeated American life for 250 years.
Hunt for Bin Ladin
Reviewed July 28 by Jon. This is a story of the hunt for Bin Ladin compiled by the Washington Post. It begins with his early background but really covers the mid 1990s until his killing by Navy Seals earlier this year. The Post chronicles the ups and downs in the hunt for Bin Ladin. Of particular interest is the era in the mid 2000s when the Bush administration both lost confidence and lost interest (because of the war in Iraq) in locating Bin Ladin and bringing him to justice. This is well written and informative. It is one of the early - but far from the last in this genre. It is a Kindle short so it is quicker to read than a full book.
Strategy, Bad Strategy: The difference and why it matters
Reviewed July 26 by Jon. I have read a lot of strategy books and this is one of the best. Rumelt explains strategy in a very clear, lucid way and distills a lot of thinking on strategy into straightforward, commonsense discussion. Rumelt very much believes, as I do, that strategy does not come from process but from the way one thinks about the problem. He offers a simple description of good strategy:
The book is organized into three sections:
The whole book is good, but the essence
is captured in the first section. If you cannot read the whole thing, read
section 1. But I do recommend reading the book in its entirety. It is well
written and easy to read in a few hours. Rumelt has an engineering background
and thinks very logically about strategy. The book has great examples to
illustrate his points - including one very familiar to our industry - NVIDIA and
SGI. He also has good examples from his classroom experience teaching strategy -
also useful to me. Of particular interest is his notion of a cohesive strategy
as designed. He draws upon his engineering background and experience at the Jet
Propulsion Lab to describe what design means - the interrelationship of parts
into systems and a coherent whole. This is one of my favorite books on strategy.
Like Jim Schraeger, at the University of Chicago, Rumelt takes a lot of thinking
and research on strategy and makes it very clear and actionable for the
Personal MBA: Master the Art of Business
Reviewed July 18 by Jon. I disagree
with the fundamental premise of the book that by reading it, one gains all of
the knowledge one gains in an MBA. However, I did like the book very much. The
author (a fellow University of Cincinnati grad), did a great job distilling a
huge amount of knowledge into very digestible chunks. That is a huge
accomplishment and I found that in reading it, I was able to cover a very broad
swath of business knowledge. It is well researched and thought out. However, the
idea that education is just pouring knowledge into someone's brain is not very
nuanced. What Kaufman misses is that education is really about experiences. The
knowledge is useful but not the main event. Kaufman has created a great catalog
of business knowledge and for that reason alone, it is a good read and will be a
good reference. But it is not a substitute for an MBA or other form of
You Ready to Succeed? Unconventional Strategies to Achieving Personal
Mastery in Business and Life
Reviewed July 17 by Jon. This particular book report has been five years in the making. I have had this book on my desk for that time, planning and hoping to work through the exercises in the book. I finally decided to just read the book and defer the exercises - although I do sometimes use the lessons from the exercises in an informal way. Rao is famous for his courses about success. He draws upon Buddhist thinking and his basic message it that we define success thorough what the external world expects of us. His approach is to figure out what success looks like for us - to build our own mental model of success and not let the external world define it. I really like his approach and am sorry it took so long to read the book - but happy that I finally finished it. I try to apply the principles that Rao espouses on an ongoing basis. I understand the need for the exercises but they do sometimes get in the way of progress. I suppose deciding to defer the exercises is actually practicing some of the lessons of the book.
Catalyst: How You can become and extraordinary growth leader
Reviewed July 17 by Jon.
I recently saw Jeanne speak about this topic and really liked
her talk. The essence of the message is that growth leaders exhibit a different
set of characteristics - a fundamental optimism, an orientation toward learning
and emperical evidence, and a genarl entrepreneurial spirit that is different
form the mindset promulagated in most business schools. This book outlines her
research from studying successful growth leaders and characterizing what makes
them successful. The book builds upon concepts similar to
The Other Side of Innovation.
Jeanne goes through lots of examples. I really liked the idea behind the book
but felt it belabored the point a bit much. This would have been a great HBR
article. The book was a bit repetitive and redundant - although I have to say
useful in hammering her points home.
Reviewed July 16 by Jon. This
is a pretty typical Wilbur Smith book with a bunch of manly men and willing
women. The story is about Hazel Bannock, beautiful heiress to the Bannock Oil
fortune and Hector Cross her chief of security. Hazel's daughter is kidnapped by
Somali pirates (on the family yacht). Most of the book is about Hector and Hazel
rescuing the daughter then avenging her death. Of course they become a couple.
Pretty standard Wilbur Smith fare. Not a lot there but entertaining and easy to
The Secret American Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power
Reviewed July 2 by Jon. The Family is a chronicle of
American Christian fundamentalism. Sharlet describes
both the fundamentalist elite – driving US politics and foreign policy – kind of
a religious imperialism and fundamentalist populism. Sharlet
spent time inside Ivanwald, a house in Washington DC – almost a religious
commune – which influences American politics. The book is well researched and a
bit frightening when one realizes the influence religious fundamentalism has had
on American politics and culture. The book itself is a bit long and uneven.
Parts are kind of boring – particularly some of the historical discussions
(although quite revealing in how long fundamentalism has driven politics. Other
parts are riveting. One interesting thing Sharlet describes is the shift from a
focus on communism during the cold war to a more on culture post cold-war. It
seems that the movement had to shift emphasis to provide a catalyst. Overall the
book was informative, if a bit tedious at times. It does provoke thought – and a
bit of anxiety – about how much power this group – both populist and elite –
evangelical Christianity has amassed for itself.
Thinking: Understanding How Designers Think and Work
Reviewed July 2 by Jon. Design Thinking is a nice little
book that tries to show – as the title suggests – how designers think. Cross
uses several case studies and ties them into academic work on the kinds of
thought processes, methods, and approaches that designers of various kinds use.
By necessity, as a short book, it does not go into great depth but nevertheless
is thought provoking.
Rams: As Little Design as Possible
Reviewed July 2 by Jon. This is a coffee table book about
the work of Deiter Rams, the iconic designer for Braun. The text traces his
background and influences and the photos provide a graphic chronicle of his
work. I usually do not buy books of this type but was interested in knowing more
about Rams – a classic German Bauhaus modernist. The book is nicely done and a
great tour of Rams career and provides a pretty good glimpse into his design
philosophy. The lessons in the text and the photographs illustrate a high degree
of coherence between Rams beliefs and his work.
Business: Leadership, Flow, and the Making of Meaning
Reviewed July 4 by
Jon. Good business takes Csikszentmihalyi’s notion of flow – the state of
optimal experience an individual has when performing a challenging and
meaningful task – and extends it from the individual to the business. He
describes the need for a business to have a purpose – beyond maximization of
shareholder value – and ways structure business environments to enable employees
to achieve a state of flow. The fundamental idea is that just as individuals
maximize their potential by achieving flow – businesses can do so was well. Good
business correlates well to my reading and thinking on both individual
performance and the need for businesses to have broader meaning than simple
shareholder value maximization. Csikszentmihalyi shows that achieving flow for
the organization is, in fact, one key to enhancing the purpose and value of a
Get There Early:
Sensing the Future to Compete in the Present
Reviewed July 4, by Jon. Get there Early is Bob Johansen’s description of the foresight->insight->action approach that he uses at the Institute for the Future. He says we live in a VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous) world filled with dilemmas. Many of us adopt a problem solving mentality (find the one right answer) that is ineffective in dealing with dilemmas. Bob describes the approaches that he and his team used at IFTF to explore future situtations and develop the strategic agility to respond to them. The book was written in 2007 and features the IFTF 10 year forecast at that time inside the front cover. Get There Early is a mix of principles/process and actual forecasts. It is a pretty easy read and does a good job of getting at the core approach of thinking about the future.
The Quest for Value:
The EVA Management Guide
Reviewed July 5, by Jon. The Quest for Value is a detailed
textbook about EVA (Economic Value Added). The concept behind EVA is simple. In
capital budgeting, one should subtract the cost of capital in determining the
value of a project. This is intuitively obvious but not much practiced. The
Quest for Value makes this case early on. It is a big, sprawling finance book
with lots of topics springing from the initial EVA premise. It has lots of case
studies and examples. The reading is a bit murky for all but the most dedicated
financial professionals. I skimmed the book – which is what I recommend after
the first few chapters.
Gomorrah: Inside the Movement that Shattered the Party
June 25, by
Jon. This was not a very
satisfying book. The thesis was intriguing - to understand the hypocrisy of the
religious conservative right who also seem to be engaging in all kinds of sexual
shenanigans. The book actually does this quite well. The reason it was not very
satisfying had more to do with style than content. It was a rambling exposition
of a bunch of people and events. It was very thorough, but not well structured.
Could have been gotten the point across in a shorter format, more to the point,
with more synthesis.
Team Six: Memoirs of an Elite Navy SEAL Sniper
June 20, by
Because Seal Team Six was
responsible for killing Bin Ladin, this book skyrocketed to the top of the
bestseller charts. It is a good book, but not that good. The book is about
Wasdin's experience as a Seal Team Six sniper. Like the
Heart and the Fist it goes through the
basics of SEAL training, but unlike the Heart and the Fist, Wasdin is a sniper
so he describes sniper training. Wasdin is a bit older than Eric Greitens so he
covers an earlier period of history - the first gulf war, Philippines, and
ending with a fairly long section on Mogadushu in Somalia, where he was deployed
as a SEAL prior to Blackhawk down. He was injured in Somalia so the end of the
book rambles a bit with Wasdin trying to find his life. That part was a
disappointment. He rambled a bit and seemed lost. It would have been better if
he had ended the book upon returning from Somalia.
for Growth: A Design Thinking Toolkit for Managers
June 15, by
Jon. Designing for Growth is a design method book
targeted at MBAs. It uses design methods (dare we call it Design Thinking) for
solving business problems. Jeanne and Tim lay out a pretty standard design
process in four phases - what is? what if? what wows? what works? - using the
diagram at the left. The diagram illustrates divergence and convergence. They
then map ten tools which they describe for each section and four project
management tools. The book is very well written and illustrated - very
straightforward. I like the style of the book and am considering using it as a
textbook in my Berkeley class. I think it speaks well about design in a way that
MBAs can understand and relate and could be a great complement to Osterwalder's
Business Model Generation. I have
seen Jeanne speak and feel that she does a good job of explaining the role of
design in business. As the title implies this is really a process book and a
toolkit. Much needed.
The Game: Bubbles, Crashes, and what Capitalism can learn from the NFL
Reviewed June 14, by Jon. In Fixing the Game, Martin attacks the notion, widely held since 1975, that the sole purpose of a business is to create shareholder value. He describes the difference between the real economy - focused on making things and creating customer value and the expectations economy - focused on stock prices that are reflect the expectations of future cash flows. He calls for an end to stock-based compensation and single-minded focus on stock price. He claims that focusing on the expectations economy causes executives to be inauthentic and ignore the real economy. Throughout the book he uses examples from the National Football League - which he holds up as an exemplar of good governance and an organization that focuses on, first and foremost, on value for its fans. He contrasts the NFL with major league baseball which has focused on enriching the players and owners at the expense of the fans. I liked this book. Martin begins to flesh out an argument that has been brewing for the past few years that businesses need to go beyond the shareholder as their sole constituent. He talks about businesses role in strengthening the civil foundation upon which society rests. One thing I particularly liked is a lesson I learned long ago that Roger reinforce - if businesses do not want to get regulated, they should take the initiative and do the right thing. If they do not, sooner or later the people they have harmed will call for regulation. A nice contribution to thinking more broadly and strategically about the role of business and its place in civil society.
Nation, Under Sex:
How the Private
Lives of Presidents, First Ladies and Their Lovers Changed the Course of
Reviewed June 7, by Jon. Flynt walks us through American history and identifies the lovers, mistresses, infatuations, etc. of many historical figures - presidents and leaders like Martin Luther King and RFK. If even half of what he and Eisenbach, a historian, documents in the book are true, our forefathers and leaders are a randy bunch. Flynt tries - I believe successfully - to show that our leaders are human. He maintains that those attracted to, and who succeed, in politics are sexually driven - this causes them to stray outside the stated norms of society. He does point out that private lives were kept out of the press until the 70s with the rise of tabloid journalism and cable TV. Our treatment of private lives of public figures was much like the European treatment until then. Now private lives have become political fodder for both the left and right. If Flynt is accurate in his historical portrayal, this will give rise to even more hypocrisy and political positioning.
is Service Design Thinking: Basics -- Tools -- Cases
Reviewed June 4, by Jon. Although Strickdorn and Schneider are the editors, this is a crowdsourced book done in a manner similar to Business Model Generation in which a number of contributors built the book. It is the first book I have seen about service design. Much of the book is standard design thinking fare mapped to services. It has a very European bias - almost all of the contributors are Europeans - but there are references to my friend Hugh Dubberly. The book is divided into three sections - 1) basics, which tries to establish some overall definitions and principles of service design; 2 - methods - a toolbox of methods - many are standard design methods, but a few such as expectation maps and service blueprints, seem specifically oriented toward services 3) cases. The book is a bit lightweight but does have some value. It does try to frame the discussion about the design of services. It is one of the first I would have liked it better if the title had been "This is Service Design".
The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power
Reviewed June 4, by Jon. Kaplan asserts that the Indian Ocean will be the stage upon which the next stage of the world's geopolitics will unfold. With the Middle East at the upper left, Pakistan and India at the top, Indonesia in the upper right, and Africa on the left - it is ringed with a variety of interesting places. The Indian ocean is bounded by much of Islam and is where much of the world's oil and other shipping moves. Kaplan sees that ocean as where China and India will compete. He views the US as dominating the ocean with our navy but fears that we will lose that dominance as China and Indian navies become stronger and we draw down our naval forces. He postulates that the US response to the 2004 tsunami in Banda Aceh was the apex of our power. The book is structured as a walk around the rim of the Indian ocean interspersed with discussions of power. I thought it was well done. I do wish he had included Australia and a bit more on Africa, but I did learn a lot about the countries spanning the rim of the Indian Ocean.
Reviewed May 30, by Jon. This could hardly be called a book, it is so short - quickie made for Kindle booklet. It is more like a long article about the events leading up to the killing of Bin Ladin by Seal Team Six. I expect this is because it was rushed to press in less than a month. Some good background about the decision, a bit thin on the actual operation. I expect this is the first of many. A good start but I look forward to reading about more detail.
Reviewed May 28, by Jon. This is a typical Michael Connelley book - an LA detective/lawyer potboiler. It makes some interesting statements about mortgage crisis (Haller has become a foreclosure specialist at the beginning of the book) and its connection to organized crime. It has all of the usual characters and is a development of the Haller franchise. It is entertaining but drags in places. OK, but not great.
Heart and the Fist: The education of a humanitarian, the making of a Navy
Reviewed May 24, by Jon. I started reading this book right before the Navy SEALS killed Osama Bin Laden. I expect it is very popular now. Greitens went into seals training in his mid-twenties after spending time as a Rhodes scholar, amateur boxer, and doing a lot of humanitarian work. The beginning of the book dragged a bit - especially the parts about boxing as a youth. He seems to be an accomplished guy but adrift. The SEAL training and deployment was pretty interesting. He makes the case that SEALS are not just violent young guys but have a humanitarian streak. He seems to be a unique individual. I wonder how typical. I particularly liked his description of deployment in Kenya since I have been to the places he was deployed. The deployment sections seemed pretty consistent with counterinsurgency thinking. The book was OK but a bit chopped up. It is as if it were three different books written at different times. It was interesting but not particularly coherent.
the Cliff: How Obama's Election Drove the American Right Insane
Reviewed May 1, by Jon. Over the Cliff is a fairly predictable tome about how the election of Barak Obama drove the radical right to be even more strident and active. Nothing terribly surprising but a good analysis of the situation. A discussion of how racial undertones have energized the radical right.
Reviewed April 18, by Jon. Obama's Wars follows in Bob Woodward's tradition of Plan of Attack, Bush at War, and State of Denial - showing inside the decisions about the Afghanistan war in the Obama White house and transition team. The central issue discussed was that battle between the military and the civilian leaders about the number of troops to send to Afghanistan. The book begins with the Obama election and ends with the sacking of Stanley McChrystal and replacement by David Petraeus. It shows the infighting between various factions and the military's push for more troops with Obama holding the line at 30,000. The tension with Pakistan is very clear. The book was good, but a little unsatisfying. I would like to know what happened and in particular, how and how effective the stepped up drones and special forces in Pakistan were. I suppose I have to wait for Bob Woodward's next book.
Great Stagnation: How America Ate All the Low Hanging Fruit of Modern
HIstory, Got Sick, and Will (eventually) feel better.
Reviewed March 31, by Jon. Taylor Cowen is a conservative economist from George Mason University. His fundamental argument is that America succeeded because of three kinds of low hanging fruit - abundant land, a large number of uneducated youth to be educated, and lots of technological change. He claims we have exhausted all three and are in an age of austerity. I agree with his assertion about land and workforce but not about technology. Although he makes an argument that the amount of change we have seen has slowing down. I think he is looking at more prosaic technologies that exist in the physical world - airplanes, cars, telephones, etc. He is discounting computing and bio stuff. He seems to be a bit myopic about technology. I do agree with him that we have focused way too much on financial engineering at the expense of real engineering. It was interesting to read a conservative economist and I found myself agreeing with much of what he said. It was a thoughtful discussion - as opposed to much of the hyperventilating that passes for conservative economics today.
Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement
Reviewed March 26, by Jon. I very much like David Brooks writing style and column in the NY Times - so this was an easy book for me to read. The fundamental argument is that we think we live in a rational society but humans are often more driven by emotion than we want to admit. Books argues that the veneer of rationality we put on everything and the assumption that humans are rational actors gets in the way of understanding what makes us tick. The book alternates between stories of the interwoven lives of several characters and a set if discursive arguments - much in the style of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. A good read, far more in depth than Bobos in Paradise, but as entertaining.
A Playbook for Innovators, Rulebreakers, and Changemakers
Reviewed March 19, by Jon. Gamestorming is a catalog of visual thinking techniques. It follows a well-structured format that describes each game, its purpose, and how to do it. I have seen some of the techniques before and some are new. I liked the structured collection of games. It is a good toolkit. I do wish the authors had provided a visual map of the techniques and had organized them in some way that was beyond a set of chapters. It seems that a chart of visual organization would really help in selecting the right game for a given situation. Gamestorming is an excellent complement to David Sibbet’s Visual Meetings.
Stella Saved the Farm: A Wild and Wooly Yarn about Making Innovation Happen
Reviewed March 19, by Jon. This is a little book written as a parable about innovation. It follows the lessons in The Other Side of Innovation – written by Govindarajan and Trimble. In simple story format, it lays out the key lessons. Cute and entertaining, I’m not sure of the greater value, but it might be a good way to introduce the key innovation concepts from their more serious work.
Reviewed March 19, by Jon. Poke the Box is a tiny little book by Seth Godin. The fundamental lesson in Poke the Box is to become and initiator. Much like a Nike ad, the message is “Just Do It”. Not a bad message, but the book is pretty superficial. It reminds me of an EST teacher at a design course I once took. OK, but not worth much more than the time it takes to read.
Reviewed March 19, by Jon. This is a sprawling work of the Urban Age Project of the London School of Economics and Deutsche Bank. The Endless City is a manifesto about cities. It covers the rise of urban life and ends with the plea the we need competitive, sustainable, and inclusive cities but our institutions (government, academia, business, the professions) are ill equipped to handle them. The book is beautifully illustrated with great statistics. It uses six cities – New York, Shanghai, London, Mexico City, Johannesburg, and Berlin as armatures to discuss urban issues. It has a number of articles by leaders discussing urban issues. The book ends with a number of “interventions” – projects which show examples of addressing some of the issues described in the book. This is a monumental work. Interestingly, even though it was written in 2007, some of the concepts already seem a little dated. Nevertheless, it is a beautifully designed book with important messages.
Reviewed March 20 by Jon. Don has made the assertion that, while people ask for simplicity, that is not always the answer. The real answer is in matching the user’s conceptual model to the task and making it clear and visible. I have read Don’s work over the years and Living With Complexity is one of the best, it rivals and builds upon the Design of EverydayThings. It reinforces and updates the lessons from DOET. I particularly liked Don’s treatment of service design (reframing as experience design) using his principles. I think this is a valuable contribution and glad to see Don has used this book to many threads from his previous work together.
User Experiences: Getting the Design Right and the Right Design
Reviewed March 20, by Jon. Bill one one of the giants of user interaction design. Sketching user experiences is a comprehensive discussion of Bill’s view of design. He asserts that sketching is one of the key tools used to design. He contrasts sketching with prototyping. He has a legitimate point, but I’m not sure I buy his distinction 100%. The book is an excellent discussion of design and covers a lot of the key elements. He provides great examples of sketching/prototyping techniques for interaction design. What I like best is that Bill clearly articulates a philosophy behind design. The book is approachable, informative, and entertaining. It is fun for me that I know several of the people he references and am quite familiar with a lot of the academic references – from my days doing user interaction design.
Reviewed March 20, by Jon. Resonate is a prequel to Slide*ology. Resonate is about storytelling. Duarte describes how to structure a presentation for maximum impact. I think she is right that resonate is a pre-quel. Slide*ology is about the slide presentation, whereas Resonate is about the presentations themselves. Resonate is extremely well illustrated – with clear diagrammatic concepts. She also dissects some famous speeches so the reader can see how here techniques map to the greats. A must read for presenters!
Zen Design: Simple Design Principles and Techniques to Enhance Your
Reviewed March 20, by Jon. Presentation Zen Design is a follow-on and complement to Presentation Zen. It is a how-to book with lots of very practical and easy-to-understand design principles. The book itself is beautifully designed. Reynolds has an underlying philosophy of design which I really like. This is a good and accessible book that is a valuable addition to the body of work on presentation.
A Presidential Novel
Reviewed March 18, by Jon. O is a fictional novel about the 2012 presidential election. Perhaps it is because I did not read it at one sitting, but I never really got engaged with the book. It has a lot of insider gossipy stuff about political campaigns, but it never seemed to gel as a novel. The writing did not seem well crafted. Lots of interesting ideas and good vignettes - but never got woven together into a coherent story. The author failed to grab my attention - perhaps they should stay anonymous.
Meetings: How Graphics, Sticky Notes, and Idea Mapping can Transform Group
Reviewed March 13, by Jon. Visual meetings is a description of the visual facilitation techniques that David Sibbet uses at his consultancy, The Grove. I have seen many of these techniques in action and it was good to see them outlined here - with both technique and rationale behind them. David has many years of experience in these kinds of techniques and I have seen him and others employ them to great effect.
Reviewed March 13, by Jon. Kevin Kelly describes the vector along which technology moves. In What Technology Wants, Kelly compares the evolution of technology with biological evolution. He asserts that both biological evolution and technological evolution are not random but follow a structure that moves toward increasing complexity. He describes the technological universe as the "technium" and asserts that technology is not value-neutral but moves toward increasing opportunities, complexity, emergence, and diversity. As expected from Kevin Kelly, this is a very technologically optimistic book. It is a bit long and dense, but well worth the read. Kelly is easy to read and thought provoking.
We Age: A Doctor's Journey into the Heart of Growing Old
Reviewed February 19, by Jon. Agronin is a geriatric psychiatrist and purports to describe the process of aging. I was expecting a scientific discussion of the aging process. Instead, he tells lots of stories about his patients. The book does give some insight into aging but left me a little bit in the dark about the processes of aging. Instead, it describes what it must feel like to get old. An interesting book, but not what I expected.
Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values
Reviewed February 19, by Jon. In The Moral Landscape, Harris makes the argument that morality can be determined rationally, using a scientific approach. He shows that values need not be based on faith or religion but can be determined in a rational, factual manner. I liked the basic argument, but the book is a pretty dense read - much in line with philosophy tracts I have read. The idea that values can be determined by objective fact is quite appealing. It is too bad that much of the world will not likely accept such a position.
Reviewed January 16, by Jon. This is a pretty typical Tom Clancy book. I have not read one in a while and I forgot that he chops up the story into a bunch of sub-stories that are hard to follow. Dead or Alive is ultimately about a private organization, "the Campus", that captures 'the Emir", a thinly disguised Bin Ladin, and turns him over to the U.S. government. I also forgot how right-wing Tom Clancy is. While his books are entertaining, his political leanings are increasingly on display and pretty repugnant at times. The Campus is not too different from Blackwater and he seems to glorify violence and a vigilante culture. Clancy would be more effective if he stuck to adventure and left his right-wing politics out of his books.
Creating the World's First Jumbo Jet and Other Adventures from a Life of Aviation
Reviewed January 11, by Jon. 747 is the story of the making of the Boeing 747 through the eyes of Joe Sutter, the engineering head of the 747 project. It is much like many aviation books - but much more engineering focused. He describes the engineering and political issues in getting the 747 designed and built. It is fascinating to read about decisions on engines, aerodynamics, etc. The story describes getting things done in a large organization and the dance that has to be done with customers - the large airlines. The 747 us a remarkable aircraft and the Sutter tells the story in an engaging and unassuming way. Great read.
Naked Presenter: Delivering Powerful Presentations With or Without Slides
Reviewed January 3, by Jon. This is the second book I have read by Garr Reynolds (the first was Presentation Zen) in which he takes presentations down to it's bare essentials of engaging and connecting with the audience. The Naked Presenter focuses less on visual imagery and more on presence. It's message, though is similar to Presentation Zen - connection, simplicity, and elegance. The book itself is beautifully crafted and makes great references to Zen philosophy - get the physical book, not the Kindle edition. A must read for those who want to be great presenters.
1999-2017 Pittman. All rights reserved.