A Spy's Guide to Strategy
Reviewed October 19th by Jon. This was an intriguing little book. It was written by an intelligence officer who defined a very simple strategy loop – start with today, envision the future, work backward to determine how to get to the future state, and then execute forward to achieve that future state. Sage advice for spies and business strategists. Braddock used intelligence examples (trying to both understand and catch Bin Laden, for example) and they made a whole lot of sense. Speaking of Bin Ladin, he also demonstrated how and why it is important to understand your adversaries strategy. I tried this model out on my ABLE students and they got it immediately. This is an Amazon Kindle short and is a quick and easy read – well worth it.
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21 Lessons for the 21st Century
Reviewed October 15, 2018, by Jon. Harari is a historian who applies the lens of history to modern-day and near-future challenges. His writing is very clear and refreshing and he ranges across a broad swath of topics. His thinking is fresh and provocative. In discussing the rise of automation, he posits that we may have a class of very literate and wealthy programmers and a class of people who are irrelevant. In past situations, the “ruling class” needed “the people” for labor. Thus they had to keep them alive and in check. But in an automated world, the masses become irrelevant. There is no economic need for them. That may be a fate worse than being controlled and subjugated. Harari defends nationalism. He says that humans are tribal – but we typically identify with people we know and live closely with – a couple of hundred people, at most. The triumph of nationalism is to get people to identify with millions of others and do things like pay taxes to help those they have not met. Of course, the challenges we have now are on a global scale and we have to scale up such identification to the whole planet – something that may not be possible. Lastly, Harari talks about the power of story. We do not believe based on rational fact, but on the stories we tell ourselves. Stories evolve and shape human behavior and culture. These three insights are just a few of the many in this book. The book is readable and provocative. Highly recommended. Harari has written x – a history of humankind, and y – about our long-term future. After reading 21 lessons I am motivated to read his other two books and complete the trilogy.
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Crazy Rich Asians
Reviewed October 7, by Jon. First we saw the movie and it was definately a candy chick film, but very well done and entertaining. Then I read the book and feel the same. Kwan writes a candy chick novel but it is funny and entertaining. You can picture all of the over the top wealth in Singapore and Hong Kong. A real candy read - but I recommend it for its entertaiinment value.
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Fear: Trump in the White House
Reviewed September 29, by Jon. Ironically, (or maybe not so ironically), Fear reminded me of Fire and Fury. Fire and Fury was written by someone who was characterized as a gossip columnist and gadfly and Fear was written by the ultra credible and respected Washington Post columnist Bob Woodward. Both books depected Trump and his white house in the same way. Trump was depicted in both books as narcissistic, ego-driven, uncurious, ignorant, and totally captured by FOX News. The White House was depicted as very dysfunctional and inhabited by two types - synchophants and those who were trying to protect the nation and the world from Trump's random and unthinking impulses. It is easy to dismiss Michael Wolff, Author of Fire and Fury. It is not so easy to dismiss Bob Woodward. Fear is written in typical Woodward style - as if it was a novel. That might overstate certain things - since he writes in a way that implies he knows peoples' hidden thoughts and motivations. That might dull his credibility slightly, but only a bit. Fear strikes fear in the reader. It verifies the dysfunction of the current adminisration and its leader. We can only hope the American voting public understands and cares enough to vote them out of office soon - before they do something truly random and destructive.
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Imagine It Forward: Courage, Creativity, and the Power of Change
Reviewed September 28, by Jon. This was written by Beth Comstock, formerly Vice Chairman of GE. On one level, it is Beth's memoir of her 27-year journey through GE (including NBC/Universal) from NBC publicity staffer to Vice Chair - spanning the end of the Jack Welch era and the entire Jeff Immelt era. Beth was a change agent within GE, trying to move a 130 year-old successful company forward. At the very beginning of the book, and thoroughout it, Beth makes the strong case that American business in general, and GE in particular, moved from innovation to optimization - somewhat driven by the financialization of the economy. The following quote exemplifies her position:
"GE's tagline in the mid-twentieth century had been 'Progress is our most important product', but somewhere along the line, when maximizing shareholder value became the scorecard for success, the game became almost exclusively about how we could make more of what we have today for less. Progress became synonymous with the perpetuation of what we've always done, just a little bit better, cheaper, faster. The mighty industrial parks, once symbols of infinite American inventiveness, became houses of worshp to optimization... Layoffs, spin-offs, outsourcing, off-shoring, reeingineering, TQM, Six-Sigma -- all of the optimize-today approach delivered incredible gains to shareholders, but without always changing a company's long-term earning potential."
Beth covers GE events such as the invention of Hulu, the Ecoimaginiation™ branding campaign, GE Ventures, The Industrial Internet, and the creation of the GE Digital group in San Ramon. She peppers the book with stories and lessons from her time at GE. At a more fundamental level, the book is about how to drive innovation and change through a very large and successful organization. It contains lots of techniques and insights - none terribly new to students of innovation -- but useful told in a GE context. Beth tried a lot of things to try to make GE more innovative. Some worked, some did not. She places innovation techniques in context of use - with real world examples. This brought the book and the lessons to life. Coming from a marketing background, Beth is a storyteller. One of my favorite quotes from the book is
"Strategy is a story well told."
Beth left GE in 2017. It will be interesting to see what she does next.
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Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing The World
Reviewed September 16, by Jon. I previously read Giridharadas The True American and found him a clear, entertaining, and provocative writer so I looked forward to reading this book. He did not disappoint. The fundamental thesis of the book is that there are a large number of well-off 1%ers who spend a lot of time, money, and energy on “making the world a better place” through philanthropy and punditry, who never examine the causes of inequality and their role in it. Giridharades calls their worldview “marketworld” – a view that the free-market economic system will solve the world’s problems. He postulates that the elites’ views (even the liberal elites) have shifted rightward since the Regan administration to embrace free market solutions and deprecate government. The big idea that he gets at is that elites do big philanthropy, attend conferences such as TED, Aspen Institute, and Davos, and look for simple solutions to big problems. But they do not examine or challenge the real, systemic causes of poverty and inequality. Girdharades gives voice to something I have felt over the years (as an attendee of some of those places) that we have an elite with a faux interest in changing the world – as long as it does not fundamentally change the structures and systems that have created the problems. In particular, they do not want to do anything to share power or wealth. He says that the elites try to pose solutions to complex systems problems in a simplistic way that can be catured in a TED talk. He particularly focuses on the financial and tech sectors and companies, such as Purdue Pharma, that created and marketed oxycodone – thus creating and exacerbating the opioid crisis. This is a well-written and important book that challenges, in a very fundamental way, the foundations of elite, liberal thought.
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Second Acts: Creating The Life You Really Want, Build the Career You Truly Desire
Reviewed September 16, by Jon. This is a book that provides a systematic way to think about changing your life and career – hence “second acts”. It has been sitting on my desk for years and I finally finished it. The book describes how to think about a change and goes through a series of exercises, interspersed with vignettes of people who have gone on from one career to second or third careers. I’m at a point in life where this is less interesting – except as a prelude to retirement. I realize the book is aging because the people used as examples are from about 10 years ago.
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True North: Discover Your Authentic Leadership
Reviewed September 16, by Jon. This is a book on authentic leadership by Bill George, former CEO of Medtronics and now Harvard Business School professor. It takes you through a series of exercises punctuated with vignettes about famous leaders. It is a book on clarifying your own values to discover your own sense of leadership. Like Second Acts, it sat on my desk for years, but now feels a bit dated. The lessons and approach are good ones – probably more incisive than second acts, but I found them less relevant to my current station in life. They may have been more relevant 10 years ago.
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The Fix: A Memory Man Novel
Reviewed September 16, by Jon. The Fix is a real page turner. It is about a team of FBI and DIA agents who are trying to solve a mysterious shooting that occurred right outside FBI headquarters. The book has good characters and lots of twists and turns in the plot. The chapters are very short but each chapter leaves the reader hanging. You just always wan to go on to the next chapter. It was very engaging. A great candy read.
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Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World – and Why Things are Better than You Think.
Reviewed September 6, by Jon. Rosling was a public heath physician and favorite TED speaker who very much focused on data to help bring insight to the world. His thesis is that we often don’t get the facts right and that we have made amazing progress in improving health, wealth, and well-being – but the way we talk about them tends to discount the progress we have made. He divides the world into four levels and describes how we have moved people up from one level to the next. He describes 10 factfulness rules of thumb to help overcome the myopia:
Rosling died before completing the book but it was completed by his son and daughter-in-law. It is a good book that urges us to look at the facts and provides useful tools to help us do so.
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Deep Shelter: A Novel
Reviewed September 10, by Jon. Deep Shelter is another Nick Belsy detective novel about reprobate London detective Nick Belsey - who I first encountered in Hollow Man. In Deep Shelter Belsky stumbles upon an extensive network of tunnels under London. After a number of abductions and otehr crimes, as well as a lot of unorthodox policing, Belsey figures out that the secret tunnels were built at the end of the cold war as an alternate city to house the survivors. Belsey is less of a reprobate than he was in Hollow Man. The book is entertaining but pretty lightweight. A candy read.
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The Soul of America: The Battle for our Better Angels
Reviewed September 7, by Jon. I used to read Jon Meacham's essays when he was editor of Newsweek and I quite liked his viewpoint. It was center-right but I found him very open and provocative. This book is a response ot the political dsyfunction we have now. It goes through history from Lincon to LBJ and covers a bunch of historical moments. Many who have commented on this book say it is reassuring because it shows that we have come through political dysfunction and division before - and the book clearly shows that. What is disheartening is that something I saw was that the division and dysfunction was addressed by the character of key individuals - politicians, Martin Luther King, and other public figures. The book clearly chronicles the character of those who stood up to injustice, racisim, and tribalism. I'm not sure I see enough of that character in our modern day public figures.
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The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50.
Reviewed August 26, by Jon. I was intrigued by the thesis of this book that general happiness drops from early in life to middle age and then increases in your 60s and 70s. Rauch uses lots of statistical studies to show this and lots of anecdotal case studies. Unfortunately he just keeps repeating the same points over and over without actually getting to the reason. This is a book that made a good article. Unfortunately the author took a good article and added lots of filler to make a book. He should have stopped at the article.
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American Character: A History of the Epic Struggle Between Individual Liberty and the Common Good
Reviewed August 22, by Jon. The subtitle accurately describes this book. Woodard is an historian who describes the U.S. as comprised of 11 regions, each with its own history and values. For example New Netherlands is the greater New York area, settled by Dutch (or more accurately, the Dutch East Indies Company). It is dominated by traders, broadly traveled, who have an international and diplomatic perspective. The Deep South, on the other hand, was settled by people from the East Indies colonies who tried to replicate the slave-driven plantation economy of those colonies. They believe in liberty for the elite and are suspicious of federal power. These nations are more thoroughly described in Woodard's other book, American Nations. The point of American Character is that embedded in these nations and in American politics are two core ideas - the idea of individual liberty - the individual's success is primary, and the common good - we all exist to help each other succeed. Exemplified in Appalachia (individual liberty) and Yankeedom (common good), Woodard asserts that the march of US history has been a struggle between the two. The political parties have, at various times, and for various purposes, switched back and forth between the two - and sometimes embody both simultaneously. Woodard asserts that American citizens vary in their preferences but are typically centrist. They don't ascribe to the hard line of either end of the spectrum. The political parties do, however, often swing to the edges. A couple of things struck me in the book. First, the description of the reconstruction in the late 1800s through the gilded age. That was an era where individual liberty was dominant and ended pathologically in the great depression. The narrative that Woodard has is surprisingly like that in The Republic For Which It Stands. Second, the degree to which the arc of American history is shaped by racism and the articulation and denial of racism. The parties often switched ideologies because of racism, and the real, underlying driver often seems to be race. This is a provocative book which provides a new lens on politics but it does not add anything dramatically new to the political discourse. Nevertheless it is well-written and informative.
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Coming To Our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World Through Mindfulness
Reviewed August 10, by Jon. This is a series of readings on mindfulness and meditation. Each reading is about 2-10 pages long. I found the book difficul to read sequentially but started reading one of the readings each night before going to bed. The readings are all pretty simple and reinforce the minfulness message. No real profound insights but a good way to get a good does of minfulness philosophy. This is not a how-to book on meditation but, rather a set of readings on the philosophy behind and effects of mindfulness.
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The Wisdom of Finance: Discovering Humanity in the World of Risk and Return
Reviewed August 6, by Jon. I expected this book to be a defense of finance. It was not. It tried to tie real world concepts such as risk, risk mitigation, savings, return, etc. It often used examples from the humanities to show the real world value of finance. It was fine, as far as it goes, but the author did not address the corruption of finance by those who have captured finance to generate returns for their own ends that are non-beneficial to society. I was expecting a response to the finance-bashing I have read, but this was not such a response.
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Scenario Planning: A Field Guide to the Future
Reviewed July 29, by Jon. This is a pretty straightforward and practical guide to scenario planning. It illustrates how to do scenario planning and features some good case studies. Nothing profound but this is a good guide. It is well-designed and liberally illustrated. Buy the phyical book rather than the kindle version
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We the Corporations: How American Businesses Won Their Civil Rights
Reviewed July 29, by Jon. This is a very detailed legal history of the battle American corporations have waged to gain the same civil rights as persons. Winkler goes all the way back to the company charters of the big British companies like the East Indies company and traces the legal machinations to the present day. Originally in US law, corporations were granted property rights but over the last century have gradually acquired “liberty” rights, such as freedom of speech (and the dubious claim that speech is money). They rode upon legal armatures such as the 14th amendment, meant to prohibit racial discrimination, by claiming they were “minorities” which were discriminated against. The book is informative but kind of long and tedious. Winkler covers a huge number of court cases. It is probably appealing to a legal scholar – but it does show both the basis for corporate arguments and the unintended consequences of some legal decisions. For example Ralph Nader’s case allowing pharmacies to advertise prices both opened the door for corporate free speech and flooded the airwaves with adds for Viagra and other drugs – targeted direct to consumers. Although the early part of the book is tedious, it provides valuable context. The last third of the book – chronicling contemporary times, was more engaging. The clear lesson is that corporate civil rights is something that American businesses have been pursuing for a while and have built the legal precedent for. A big part of their argument is that corporations are owned by people and just a structure over freely deciding individuals – a dubious argument in the era of institutional ownership and passive investing. This book convinced me that a more bold step – such a a constitutional amendment clearly establishing the role of corporation in society – as distinct and separate from persons – is needed.
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The Age of Dignity: Preparing for the Elder Boom in a Changing America
Reviewed July 10, by Jon. I expected this to be a more substantive book about the implications of an aging population. It was mostly about the need for elder care workers - who are frequentyly poor immigrant women. The book was mostly about organizing these workers. This is a worthy goal but seemed to be an incrmenetal solutiont the problem and not very profound. A disappointment. There is a lot to be discussed on the topic of aging. Unfortuntately, this book did not discuss it.
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The Art of Thinking In Systems: Improve your Logic, Think More Critically, and use Proven Systems to Solve Your Problems - Strategic Planning for Everyday Life
Reviewed July 8, by Jon. I never thought it possible to do a systems thinking book as a self-help book, but it is. This is an OK little book, applying the basics of systems thinking to everyday life. OK as it goes but pretty pop and candy. I would have liked a bit more rigor on systems thinking - but this does provide some. Easy read but not sure how worthwhile it is.
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Strategy Beyond the Hockey Stick: People, Probabilities, and Big Moves to Beat The Odds
Reviewed July 7, by Jon. The authors are McKinsey consultants who have written a different kind of strategy book. They rely on data and behavioral economics to show that much of what passes for strategy is ineffective. They blame an overly process and framework oriented strategy process and assert that this "rational" process ignores the social side of strategy. Is is actually incremental planning that has a very inside orientation. The authors suggest an external orientation and much less formal but more impactful approach to strategy. Instead of frameworks, they provide 8 simple rules, with a few prescriptions for each rule:
This is a short, readable book. I have not found much fresh in the strategy literature in recent years - but this book qualifies. Recommended for practitioners of strategy who want to break out of incremental internally focused "strategic planning" to create true competitive separation.
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The President is Missing: A Novel
Reviewed July 7, by Jon. This is political potboiler written by ex-president Clinton and James Patterson. In it, the president - a thinly disquised Bill Clinton - goes missing. He has a rare blood disease and his wife recently dies. Where is he and why? It turns out the reason for his disappearance is that the US has been hacked with a virus that whipes all of our computers. The president is in a race with time and in cahoots with one of the hackers - who are foreign terrorists - do disarm the virus. He is not sure who in his cabinet he can trust and they are on the verge of impeaching him in any case. Of course, the heroic president prevails and saves the day. Easy summer reading, but little substance.
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How the Right Lost its Mind
Reviewed July 4, by Jon. I saw Sykes on a panel at the Aspen Ideas Festival. I had previously heard of him as a conservative talk show host from Wisconsin who became disillusioned with the Trump Republican party. When I saw him on the panel, I was impressed with him - he seemed to be thoughtful, articulate, and relatively moderate --- so I decided to read his book. Sykes is, indeed a moderate Republican. He is a classic Republican in the sense of supporting free trade, individual freedom/responsibilty, and limited governement. Although he identifies with Reagan, he seems to realize that the conservative movement needs to move beyond Regan. He is clearly a man of ideas. I agree with some of his ideas and disagree with others. He repesents the a principled reasoned form of conservative thought. Like may traditional Republicans, he is dismayed by the hijacking of the GOP by populist and alt-right powers. This book is his perspective. Not a lot new here, but it is very readable and informative. He does spend considerable time on how the right-wing media enabled Trump. As a member of that media, he has particular insights. The respect I had for him at Aspen grew after reading the book. Although I disagree with some of his positions - we need more principled conservatives like him, instead of the unhinged populists and nationalists who occupy the right now. I do wonder what he thinks of the very right wing policy that Trump's cabinet picks seem to be taking.
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TailSpin: The People and Forces Behind America's 50-year Fall - and Those Trying to Reverse It.
Reviewed July 3, by Jon. Brill is a Yale law professor and, thus looks at America through the lens of the law. His fundamental premise is that meritocracy - as promoted heavily in the '50s and '60s produced a class of smart but somewhat value-challenged technocrats who took aspects of the law to extremes. His examples include corporate governance (and the primacy of shareholder value), financial engineering (and the financialization of the economy), due process - which allows pretty much anyone to block change and regulation, civil service rules - which calcify public organizations, private property rights, and several others. All of these legal and financial innovations started with a good reason but got taken to the extreme and created unintended consequences. The meritocracy then built deep moats around these constructs to prevent change. What struck me about Brill's analysis is that the legal issues are all about rights - what was missing was the accompanying responsibilities. In fact, the construction of moats to protect the rights is almost antithetical to responsibility. As with many books of this type, Brill had a good explanation of the problem and insights as to how it would occur, but it was long on analysis and short on synthesis. What do we do about it? He did provide insight but few solutions. Perhaps just illuminating the problem will be sufficient catalyst for someone else to figure out how to light a fire and create change.
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Our Towns: A 100,000 Mile Journey Into the Heart of America
Reviewed June 10, by Jon. The Fallows fly their Cirrus SR-22 to a number of towns around the United States. They are mostly small towns and small cities, generally away from the coastal cities (Columbus, Ohio is the largest city). In each city they try to understand what makes the city tick, what the citizens are proud of, and how they are working together to strengthen their city. What they found is despite dysfunction and division in government at the federal level, and sometimes at the state level, at the local level people were working together to find solutions. They found a lot of optimism and actual accomplishment. They found people working together to build on what made their places unique and special. It is fun reading about each of the places. At the end of the book, the Fallows try to distill some lessons:
They also noted that the places which were thriving had at least one craft brewery. The lessons were not prescriptions, but observations. After all of the talk of political dysfunction in America, this was a refreshing book. It told stories of towns and cities where the people came together to figure out what made their place unique, and then invested in the things that would enhance that uniqueness and create vibrant places to live and work.
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Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, From Eisenhower to the Tea Party
Reviewed May 18, by Jon. Rule and Ruin is a very detailed history of the Republican party from the 1950s to the present. The fundamental thesis is that there used to be a large group of moderate republicans (or those who might be considered liberals by today's standards) exemplified by Nelson Rockefeller who used to dominate the Republican party. Many of them were from the Northeast and Midwest. These moderate Republicans believed in limited government and individual freedom - conservative values, to be sure, but they did believe in government. There was an influential club called the Ripon Society and the National Review and Advance magazines, which were forums for these moderate Republicans. Even Republicans sucha s Richard Nixon and Ronald Regan had moderates in their cabinets and much more moderate views than we see today. The book starts in 1950 and chronicle the gradual erosion of moderate Republicanism by "movement conservatism", evangelical christians, and the Tea Party - aided and abetted by right wing media such as Fox and Rush Limbaugh. We also see the arc of many Republicans start out as moderates and become more radically right. It was interesting to me that one good example of a moderate republican was Chuck Whalen, my congressman in Dayton, Ohio. I remember his as a pretty serious guy. The book shows a fascinating arc of capture of the party by right wing radicalism. It ends just before the Trump election. I really would like to see another chapter on the Trump administration.
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On Leopard Rock: An Adventure in Books
Reviewed May 18, by Jon. This is Wilbur Smith's autobiography. It explains his background and the influence on his very prolific series of novels set in Africa over time. It is pretty lightweight and jumps around in time and place - making it difficult to follow. I wish he had been a bit more linear and structured and tied better to his books to see what influenced them - and how his understanding of Africa evolved over time. Smith is pretty racist and sexist - but he, of course, denies that. Entertaining for those who have read a lot of his books but probably not interesting otherwise.
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A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership
Reviewed May 6, by Jon. This is James Comey's memoir written immediately after he was fired as Director of The FBI by Donald Trump. It is short on overall bio (although it was interesting to learn of his early days as a federal prosecutor of NY mafia figures) and long on the days leading up to and after the Trump election. Comey paints himself as an upstanding guy - exactly like you'd expect the FBI Director to be - who puts country above self. He paints Trump as a narcissistic jerk who thinks he is above the law - akin to the Mafia kingpins he prosecuted earlier in his career. Comey has been criticized for painting too good a picture of himself - although not so much for painting a bad picture of Trump. Comey might be a bit self-serving in the book but I tend to believe his depiction of the situation. There was not a lot of terribly new stuff in the book. Much of the events were thoroughly covered in the media. It was nice, however to put all of the pieces together. Comey was trying to do the right thing and got the shaft.
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The Common Good
Reviewed April 27, by Jon. The Common Good is one of Reich’s better books, it covers a simple premise well and in-depth. The premise is that we have lost a sense of “common good”, I.e that we are all in this together, that was part of the fundamentals upon which the country was founded and society functions. He castigated the Ayn Rand set for doing “whatever it takes” to get ahead individually. Reich is sometimes kind of repetitive and preachy, but I liked this book. Not only do I agree with his premise but he wrote more clearly and succinctly than he usually does - on a par with SuperCapitalism. His message is a good one that needs to be heard much more broadly.
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Educated: A Memoir
Reviewed April 24, by Jon. Westover was a young woman in a Mormon survivalist family in Idaho. Her father ran a scrap metal business and did small-time contracting, and her mother was a midwife and herbalist. Westover and her siblings both helped with the businesses and were ostensibly home schooled. Her father is a survivalist who believed the apocalypse is near and that public education and medical care were government intrusions in peoples lives. When she is 17, Westover decides to go to college at Brigham Young University (not a school at the heart of liberalism). She struggles because she actually is quite ignorant of much of the world (biggest example is no knowledge of the holocost) because of her parents’ isolation and inward focus. She taught herself an went on to get a PhD in History from Cambridge and do a fellowship at Harvard. The book is a memoir - thus is it is really about her personal life, coming to grips with a very dysfunctional family, and becoming herself in spite of her background. The book has some similarities to Hillbilly Elegy in that it describes white working class dysfunction and one person’s struggle to escape. It differs in that the Hillbilly Elegy describes a a pretty big group of people in Appalachia and Educated describes what, one would hope, is a small group of extremists in the mountain West. The book was easy to read and hard to put down. It read like a novel, but it is real.
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The New Geography of Jobs
Reviewed April 20, by Jon. Moretti is a Berkeley economist who has studied, as the book title suggests, how geography affects jobs. He begins with a 1969 story of a young engineer in Menlo Park, CA named David Breedlove who decided to move to Visalia, CA, in the San Joaquin Valley. In 1969 Visalia and Menlo Park were somewhat different but also had a lot of similarities. They had a mix of income levels and similar quality of schools and life as well as income levels. Since 1969, the two communities have diverged dramatically. One variable that Moretti points to is the number of college educated residents. Visalia’s number has plummeted and Menlo Park’s has soared. In parallel, salaries, housing prices, crime, school quality and quality of life have dramatically diverged. Following the urbanist thread from Jane Jacobs through Richard Florida and many others, Moretti talks about how innovation clusters attract talent and, in an increasingly virtuous cycle, attract more innovation and talent. This was true of places like Detroit, Pittsburgh, and Dayton, Ohio - where I grew up - in the industrial era - where proximity to related businesses, talent, and other resources fed on itself. Now, innovation clusters are increasingly focused on knowledge rather than physical resources - hence Silicon Valley, Seattle, parts of the East Coast. While innovation hubs like this draw talent, they tend to draw talent away from places that do not have good jobs and innovative, growing businesses. These places enter a death spiral and decline. Moretti notes that it is not just software engineers and scientists who gain in an innovation hub, all workers do - because of demand for their services. Conversely, places that lose, decline for similar reasons. The beginning of the book is a well articulated narrative of how place affects innovation with a good discussion of the industrial revolution to the present. The book makes a compelling case for why things work the way they do, a less compelling case for solutions. Moretti talks about supply side solutions - a la Richard Florida - around making places attractive to the creative class and demand side solutions like economic development programs by states and cities. Neither seems adequate. Moretti does point out that innovation clusters often start with a small seed and it is unclear whether they will succeed. One thing is clear - long term success depends on building human capital in the form of education. This is a good book that adds more insight into the causes of inequality and the solutions are sound - but will not satisfy many. There is no silver bullet.
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The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale And the American Tragedy in Vietnam
Reviewed April 19, by Jon. Edward Lansdale was a contemporary of John Paul Vann and an early advisor to the South Vietnamese government. He was a US Air Force and CIA officer who befriended and advised a number of Vietnamese leaders. He was an early proponent of winning the “hearts and minds” of the people and was opposed to using overwhelming military force. In essence, he was an advocate of counterinsurgency approaches, not direct military forceful confrontation. Max Boot, the author of this very comprehensive biography of Landsdale, is a strong believer in counterinsurgency so it is not surprising he wrote about Lansdale. Lansdale started in the Philippines but spent a significant amount of time in Vietnam. He had a couple of tours there with a stint at the Pentagon in between. He was a pariah among the U.S establishment for his unorthodox views and counted people such as Vann and Daniel Ellsworth (of Pentagon papers fame) as his colleagues. Lansdale had a family in the U.S. and a long-term mistress in the Philippines. His personal life interleaved with his military and diplomatic life. This is a pretty long book and adds one more brick in the wall of my understanding of what happened in Vietnam.
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Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic
Reviewed April 9, by Jon. Although a similar genre as Fire and Fury, Trumpocracy is a more serious book about the Trump presidency from the point of view of someone who has been there - in the White House. David Frum was a speechwriter for George W. Bush. The books chronicles the many mistakes and missteps of the Trump administration and shows how the ineptitude and rampant corruption are damaging the country and the presidency. There was not a lot surprising in this book - which is a sad commentary on the state of affairs in the White House and the country.
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Charmed in Chengdu
Reviewed March 26, by Jon. I bought this book because I am going to Chengdu and thouught it would provide some insight. What a mistake. This book is about a 60ish divorced teacher who moves to Chengdu for a couple of years to teach English at a vocational school. There was no plot, the cover hinted at stuff that never really happened, and overall it was a pretty lame book. It was mildly interesting as a story of life in contemporary China but mostly a big disappointment.
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The Left Behind: Decline and Rage in Rural America
Reviewed March 25, by Jon. Robert Wuthnow is a Princeton sociologist who studied rural America to try to figure out why rural Americans are so alienated. The Left Behind is a compact and readable book which adds a few more pieces to the puzzle, but does not completely explain the disaffection that got Donald Trump elected. His fundamental thesis is that people in small towns identify strongly with their town and are bound together by a moral fabric that defines their lives and binds them to each other - that makes for a cohesive and uncritical (as in unquestioning) view of the world. Wuthnow does describe a kind of hollowing out of small towns as they lose their young population to urban areas. The best and the brightest, after a modicum of education, leave for new opportunities. They may go away to college and never return. This, in turn, spirals down. Youth leave and the towns become more insular. It is difficult to attract new businesses because it is hard to attract people and companies. One feature which Wuthnow documented was a sense of hatred at the federal government. This is hard to understand. Perhaps I am naive or am just in different circumstances, but the federal government just does not figure prominently in my everyday life. Wuthnow described some small town political leaders who struggle to try to improve things, but the citizens thwart them. He described one who applied for a federal grant. A citizen was to do the paperwork and complained to the granting agency about the paperwork. The agency declined to make the grant and indicated that they would not issue grants to the town in the future. Overall, Wuthnow painted a picture of small towns as self-contained, and proud, but insular. Their challenges are part of an inexorable march of urbanization that may be hard to reverse. Wuthnow added to my understanding of the problem, but it was difficult to discern prescriptions from his book.
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A World in Disarray: American Foreign Policy and The Crisis of the Old Order
Reviewed March 22, by Jon. Dr. Richard Haas, the author is president of the Council on Foreign Relations and has had a distinguished career in foreign policy. The book goes through a good explanation of foreign policy and covers, with a reasonable depth, the various challenges over time and by region. It presents an strong, logical explanation of the issues with foreign relations and the institutions and structures we have built to preserve peace and prosperity throughout the world. This book was not exciting or provocative, but it was informative. I came away with a deeper respect for those who practice foreign policy and the tools they have at their disposal and the balance they have to achieve. The last chapter of the book covers the United States. Prior to that chapter, Haass makes it clear that the United States has a special role in creating peace and stability in the world. In the last chapter, Haass ruminates on the challenges of the United States chaotic and amateurish political environment in assuming and perpetuating that role. Haass demonstrates the value and power of competence and expertise. I write this on the eve of John Bolton being named National Security Advisor - which underscores much of the concern that Haass describes. Will 50 years of U.S. foreign policy be undone by ineptitude and ideology at the helm of the U.S government?
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The Captured Economy: How the Powerful Enrich Themselves, Slow Down Growth, and Increase Inequality
Reviewed March 11, by Jon. The was written jointly by a liberal and libertarian so it is a balanced, non-partisan view of the economy. The key issue that the authors address is "upward distributive rent-seeking". That sounds kind of technical but is pretty simple. "Rent seeking" is an economic term for the zero-sum contest for excess payments to any factor of production (land, labor, or capital). Upward disribution is just what it sounds like, rents go to the already well-off. Rent-seeking behavior is believed to distort the economy, accumulate wealth among the already wealthy, stall growth, and increase inequality -- but it is clearly rampant in our society. The authors cover four examples of rent-seeking - finance, intellectual property, occupational licensing, and land use laws. The case studies are OK but were a little disappointing. What did get very interesting was the authors' analysis of why rent-seeking is so rampant (and successful for the rent-seekers), and what to do about it. The reasons for rent-seeking behavior are obvious. What the authors describe though, is relative power. Rent-seekers have powerful motivation to both seek rents but also protect rent-seeking. Think of an oil, pharma, or big ag company that has some kind of government subsidy. The rent-seekers are highly motivated and have the resources to invest in lobbying, political donations, and "education" to perpetuate the rents. The power and resources of the rent-seeker are concentrated around perpetuating the rent. Those who are harmed by the rent, i.e. all of us, have diffuse power. While we may be harmed by the rent, it is not a burning issue around which we are organized and fight against. Thus, the rent-seekers usually prevail. Of particular interest was "education". Rent seekers can devote a lot of resources to develop information - which, BTW, is expensive to produce. They provide this information to policy makers. The resources to produce information for the counter-argument may not be as plentiful or concentrated. The authors' prescription is really around public deliberation. The only way to counter rent-seeking is for public discourse and examination of issues. Much rent-seeking happens behind the scenes. Public discourse may explose it to more scrutiny. The authors' also said we need more neutral non-partisan sources of information, such as the Congressional Budget Office, to produce objective analysis of policy discussions. Finally, they urge higher salaries to attract higher quality legislative staffers who have the wherewithal to view policy issues objectively. They maintain that low salaries among, say, congressional aides, leads to young, inexperienced staffers who may not have the perspective to counter the power of rent-seekers. Overall, I found the second half of the book on root causes and prescriptions quite interesting and valuable. The first half merely set the context for the more important discussion.
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All the Devils are Here: The Hidden History of the Financial Crisis
Reviewed February 25, by Jon. This is a very comprehesive history of the events leading up to the 2008 financial crisis - from the subprime mortgage boom to the big banks buying CDOs that they had no idea about. It is very detailed naming names and specific events. What is striking about the book is how clueless many of the "sophisticated investors" are. They are busy taking on risk without understanding their investments and are playing a shell game of transferring risk elsewhere. This reinforced my predudices about the financial community - the don't really know what they are doing and are focused less on serving society and more on enriching themselves through financial engineering. What is frightening after reading this book is that the protections put in place to prevent this from happening again are being unwound by the Trump administration. They should be tightend and some of those responsible should have gone to jail.
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Zone to Win: Organizing to Compete in an Age of Disruption
Reviewed February 18, by Jon. Geoffrey Moore is known for taking management theory and making it accessible and actionable. Zone to Win is no different. In this book, Moore talks about zoning they your business into four zones performance, productivity, Incubation, Transformaton - which map to horizons in horizon planning. Productivity is the only zone which does not and it relates to systemetizing the business. This book is actually a detailed managment playbook for plaing zone offense and defense - built upon a lot of Moore's other ideas. Some of it seems overly simplistic and prescriptive, but it is actionable, nevertheless. As usual, Moore creates a clear framework for his ideas. Worth reading and considering how to apply to your organization.
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We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy
Reviewed February 16, by Jon. The title is derived from a book on black political leadership right after the slaves were freed post Civil-war, but is actually (as expected) about he Obama years. Coates writes about the black experience and the years under Obama. He talked a lot about he feels about the legacy of slavery. I found I could empathize but it was unclear what action he wanted to take to rectify. He admired Obama but felt that he put too much emphasis on personal responsibility vs. systemic issues. I agree that the systemic issues are there but not sure how to resolve. Personal responsibility at least seems actionable. The book concludes with a discussion of Trump as a white reaction to the first black president. There is a lot of truth to what he says but I think things are more nuanced than that. I’m glad I read this book but it left me wishing for something more substantive or conclusory.
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The Road Taken: The History and Future of America’s Infrastructure
Reviewed February 16, by Jon. Petroski is one of America’s most lucid writers on engineering. In this book, he covers American infrastructure- how it historically evolved from an engineering, political, and financial viewpoint. He covers lots of gritty details about how roads, drainage, and bridges work and are funded. The writing is fluid and easy to read. He makes a topic which could be boring interesting. I have always felt we underinvested in infrastructure, and came away from this book with a sense of hopelessness. There is much that needs to be done but powerful political forces – ideological, not pragmatic, that will prevent it from getting done. The book is worth the read. It was a bit one-dimensional – focusing mostly on roads and bridges (with a little water a rail thrown in). It would be nice if it covered other forms of infrastructure – including power and digital communications. Perhaps for his next book.
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Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House
Reviewed Feb 12, by Jon. This is controversial tell-all book about the Trump White House. While it has been regaled as a piece of gossip writing, it still has value. It does give some idea of the tone that is also visible to the outside world. Although the writing is meant to be titillating and provocative, if half of the stuff is true, the country is in the reckless hands of a deeply troubled and unqualified individual and the sycophants who surround him. See Fear by Bob Woodward, for a related review.
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Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World Class Performers from Everybody Else
Reviewed Feb 12, by Jon. Colvin is a Fortune editor who has studied peak performance. His book both amplifies and modifies the assertion that Malcolm Gladwell and others have made that top performance comes from 10,000 hours of practice. Colvin asserts that context matters a lot, too. It is not just blink practice, but purposeful practice. Also support in the form of family, coaches, mentors, teachers, … While Colvin believes that practice is important it is too narrow a view. There are other factors at play as well.
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Wherever You Go, There you Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life
Reviewed Feb 12, 2018 by Jon. This is a classic on mindfulness and meditation written by a well-known expert in the field. It is written in very short chapters, which makes it easy to pick up and read sporadically. That is just what I did. I wish I read it in a more continuous setting to better get the lessons. I did find it useful however as an expression of an approach and philosophy. I already know something about the topic so got something out of it. Another style might be better if someone is looking for a “how-to” manual.
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The Economist’s Diet: The Surprising Formula for Losing Weight and Keeping it Off
Reviewed Feb 11, 2018. Payne and Barnett are economists who worked together at Bloomberg. Both were obese and lost and maintained lots of weight by applying economic principles. Their fundamental thesis is that excess weight is caused by abundance – abundance of cheap, high calorie food. Not a surprise. Their view is that the only way to lose weight is to eat less – also no surprise. What is different about their approach is that they do not advocate for or against specific foods or calorie counting. They try to take a behavioral approach. Their core recommendation is to weigh yourself every day and become aware of what works for you and does not. They don’t try to prevent feasting, but say you will need to pay the price by fasting. They claim you cannot lose weight and maintain it without learning to live with going hungry sometimes. Their approach really is about learning how your body responds to food and then making behavioral adjustments. They have some credibility for their approach – they both were obese and lost a lot of weight, each getting into a healthy zone and maintaining it. The book makes a lot of common sense. Although I have not yet become as disciplined as they would advocate, I have tried monitoring my weight on a daily basis (I have on a weekly basis for years) and have seen a correlation. In contrast to various fad diets – this book is very straightforward and common-sensical. I’ll try its advice and see how well it works.
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What's The Future and Why It's Up to Us
Reviewed January 15, by Jon. Tim O'Reilly, like me, is a technological optimist. This book is fundamentally about how artificial intelligence will shape society. Rather than taking a dystopian view, so common now int he press, O'Reilly shows us how this can benefit society - if we take control of it. He views technology as a force to improve productivity but also says we should harness it rather than let it happen to us. There is a lot to like about this book. I found it a complete and cogent manifesto that organizes and gives voice to many of the things I believe. O'Reilly ranges far and wide through a bunch of topics - including the over financialization of our economy, which leads to investing in technology to the exclusion of workers. He shows that the obsession with "shareholder value" to the exclusion of human values is at the root of the dystopian visions and how we can address by valuing and developing people. This is a big book that is well worth reading.
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The Hollow Man: A Novel
Reviewed January 5, by Jon. This is a detective novel about London reprobate detective Nick Belsky. Belsky has absolutely no moral compass. He finds a Russian mobster who was killed and moves into his mansion and assumes his life. The book is about Belsky investigating the murder of the Russian's young assistant who turns out to be a teen hooker in a relationship with another cop. In sort of the Harry Bosch tradition but with no seeming redeeming moral fiber, Belsky lurches from one crisis to another throughout the book. This is an easy, entertaining read and I did find myself identifying with Belksy as he novel progressed - as horrifying as that might seem.
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