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Posted Dec. 28, 2012 5:53 a.m. by sally-haldorson
In - 800 CEO Read Blog
Last week, we released our picks for the Best Business Book of 2012 as well as the eight category winners. Following in the footsteps of the New York Times, if we may, who asked a few of their esteemed book reviewers to reveal a list of their favorite books of 2012 ("Favorite is not synonymous with best, so this process can be painful. Brutal honesty is required. We pick what we actually liked, not what we only admired, although ideally our favorites fit both descriptions" writes Janet Maslin. And also, "In the midnight hour these 10 Favorites — not 10 Bests — call for a gut check. Bottom line, for each of us: Is this a book I’d give to a friend?"), we've decided to also share with you a list of our 'favorite' business books. For us, we decided this list should consist of books that are square pegs that don't quite fit into the business book genre's round holes. Books that are valuable and interesting to the business and/or nonfiction reader, but might have more universal application than the books that were picked for our annual awards. And so...our editorial staff's favorite books of the year:
Sally - Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain from Crown Business
The secret to life is to put yourself in the right lighting. For some it's a Broadway spotlight; for others, a lamplit desk. Use your natural powers--of persistence, concentration, insight, and sensitivity--to do work you love and work that matters. Solve problems, make art, think deeply. [...] Figure out what you are meant to contribute to the world and make sure you contribute it. If this requires public speaking or networking or other activities that make you uncomfortable, do them anyway. But accept that they're difficult, get the training you need to make them easier, and reward yourself when you're done.
Dylan - The Fine Print: How Big Companies Use 'Plain English' to Rob You Blind by David Cay Johnston from Penguin Portfolio
How the promise of cheap, competitive and unlimited telecommunications service has been turned into a reality of expensive, monopolistic and limited service is just one part of the larger transformation in the American economy since the late 1970s. A host of large industries, including banks, credit card lenders, electric utilities, health care, oil pipelines, Hollywood studios, property insurance, railroads and water companies, all have worked quietly to rewrite America’s economic playbook in their favor. [...] In The Fine Print, we’ll look at how legislatures have rewritten basic business laws, some whose principles date back thousands of years.
Michael - Beating the Global Odds: Successful Decision-making in a Confused and Troubled World by Paul Laudicina from John Wiley & Sons
Today's leaders and citizens have to accept a world fraught with volatility and disruptive change, and they have to realize that inaction is not a good option. It's not all bad: This unprecedented volatility is accompanied by an equally unprecedented and compelling convergence of doing well with doing good--a blending of the pursuit of enlightened self-interest with the pursuit of the common good....By leveraging new technological capabilities and employing more dynamic ways of thinking and inspiring the future, we can beat the global odds.
Jon - Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder by Nassim Nicholas Taleb from Random House
Some things benefit from shocks; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors and love adventure, and risk, and uncertainty. Yet, in spite the ubiquity of the phenomenon, there is no word for the exact opposite of fragile. Let us call it anti-fragile. [So...] The best way to verify that you are alive is by checking if you like variations. Remember that food would not have a taste if it weren't for hunger; results are meaningless without effort, joy without sadness, convictions without certainty, and an ethical life isn't so when stripped of personal risk.
Jack - Bitter Brew: The Rise and Fall of Anheuser-Busch and America's Kings of Beer by William Knoedelseder from HarperBusiness
Thanks to their beer, the Busch family had tasted all that America ever promised the immigrant class from which they sprang --wealth almost beyond comprehension, political power that provided access to presidents, and a lifestyle rivaling that of history's most extravagant royals. Along with that, of course, came a king-sized portion of heartbreak, scandal, tragedy, and untimely death. But they had endured.... Of the brewing giants that boomed after Prohibition...only Anheuser-Busch remained as a free-standing, independent company, still operated by the family that founded it.
The Best Books of 2012, Amazon Edition
Posted Nov. 28, 2012 2:50 a.m. by dylan
In - 800 CEO Read Blog
Amazon's editors have come up with another fine list of books this year. Their choices in the Business and Investing category are:
- The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg, Random House
- Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Random House
- The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else In Business by Patrick Lencioni, Jossey-Bass
- Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power by Steve Coll, The Penguin Press
- Startup Communities: Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Your City by Brad Feld, John Wiley & Sons
- How Much is Enough?: Money and the Good Life by Robert Skidelsky and Edward Skidelsky
- Reverse Innovation: Create Far From Home, Win Everywhere by Vijay Govindarajan, Chris Trimble and Indra K. Nooyi, Harvard Business Review Press
- The Launch Pad: Inside Y Combinator, Silicon Valley's Most Exclusive School for Startups by Randall Stross, Portfolio
- The Strategy Book (Financial Times Series) by Max McKeown
- The End of Money: Counterfeiters, Preachers, Techies, Dreamers—and the Coming Cashless Society by David Wolman
But, as always, the books that would interest a business book reader aren't confined to the Business and Investing list. Private Empire is also listed in the History category, as is one of Jack's favorite books of the year, Bitter Brew: The Rise and Fall of Anheuser-Busch and America's Kings of Beer by William Knoedelseder, published by HarperBusiness.
In the general Nonfiction category, The Signal and the Noise and The Power of Habit both made the list along with Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain (published by Crown).
The Signal and the Noise also made the Politics and Social Science list—along with Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, and also published by Crown— and the Science list (it's been a very good year for Nate Silver). One final Science title that may interest some business readers is Connectome: How the Brain's Wiring Makes Us Who We Are by Sebastian Seung, from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder
Posted Nov. 13, 2012 7:55 a.m. by sally-haldorson
In - 800 CEO Read Blog
This morning I perused the Amazon Top 100 for 2012. A few of our favorite books that made the top 20: Nate Silver's The Signal and the Noise; Charles Duhigg's The Power of Habit (our JCS review here); and Susan Cain's Quiet (our take here.) Rounding out the top 40 is a book that's been sitting on my desk for awhile, daring me to crack it open: Nassim Nicolas Taleb's Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder.
Over the weekend, I took that dare.
Why is reading and summarizing Antifragile such a nervy challenge? Practically, because it is a 544-page tome (with a labyrinthian Table of Contents) that already hints in its title its level of complexity. "Antifragile"--what exactly does that mean? The opposite of fragile? Unbreakable? Solid? And "Things That Gain From Disorder"--advantages to be had from chaos? Circling back around to the title: So, chaos can create solidity? Seems an oxymoron that isn't going to be easy to get my head around.
Then, there is the author to consider, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who is most famous for introducing "black swans" to our common lexicon and has since put out many books, including The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, and Fooled By Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets, that aim to rejigger our understanding of the world and our attempts to make sense of things. The theory of black swan events is that there are rare, highly 'impactful' events that happen that cannot be predicted, and should not be thought to be able to be predicted just because hindsight lends us some understanding of the event once it has passed. Antifragile aims to take the black swan theory and apply it more broadly to teach how to live peaceably with random events that may have no explanation but contribute to a greater strength as a whole.
Let's take a look at the book.
Taleb begins his Prologue with a surprisingly clear and streamlined explanation of the very oxymoron that I touched on above. In the opening section titled, "How to Love the Wind," Taleb writes:
Ah, now we see very clearly what we're dealing with here. While most people fear that change will put out our flame, we have a choice to use change to fan that flame.
Likewise with randomness, uncertainty, chaos: you want to use them, not hide from them. You want to be the fire and wish for the wind. This summarizes this author's nonmeek attitude to randomness and uncertainty.
We just don't want to just survive uncertainty, just about make it. We want to survive uncertainty and, in addition--like a certain class of aggressive Roman Stoics--have the last word. The mission is how to domesticate, even dominate, even conquer, the unseen, the opaque, and the inexplicable. How?
There is a lot to learn already about this book in that small section. Taleb has a strong voice and a strong opinion and a certain tendency to reference unfamiliar things (Roman Stoics particularly versus other kinds of stoics, anyone?) that will prompt you to have Wikipedia open on your nearest device as you read. ("Later Roman Stoics focused on promoting a life in harmony within the universe, over which one has no direct control.") But he is also digging at something that intrigues all of us, so much so that we've constructed religions and philosophies around the fear of uncertainty. And as a result, we would all prefer, I think, to become "antifragile" which Taleb defines this way:
Some things benefit from shocks; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder and stressors and love adventure, and risk, and uncertainty. Yet, in spite the ubiquity of the phenomenon, there is no word for the exact opposite of fragile. Let us call it anti-fragile.
And what is the cost of tending too much to the fragile, of wrapping ourselves in a kind of risk-averse bubble wrap? "We have been fragilizing the economy, our health, political life, education, almost everything...by suppressing randomness and volatility." Taleb reveals, it seems, his interest in the topic, his motivation for writing this book, and the lesson he hopes to bestow on readers (perhaps especially the neurotic ones) in this emphatic line: "I want to live happily in a world I don't understand."
Don't we all? Wouldn't that be quite a bit easier than trying to understand and be happy in a world that at times defies explanation? But control is seductive. "Black swans hijack our brains, making us feel we "sort-of" or "almost" predicted them, because they are retrospectively explainable." For example, it's common for people to respond to a wrench in their plans by saying, with both resignation and purpose, "Ah well, everything happens for a reason." Taleb is decidedly and emphatically saying the opposite, "No, there is not always a reason for everything: and that's ok."
With Antifragile, Taleb is offering us a 500+ page manual to achieve antifragility. He himself admits that here he has become a "practitioner" of his cumulative theories ("I eat my own cooking."), and this book is "a main corpus focused on uncertainty, randomness, probability, disorder, and what to do in a world we don't understand, a world with unseen elements and properties, the random and the complex; that is, decision making under opacity." And throughout, Antifragile is crammed with Taleb's unique and aggressive style of mixing the scholarly, the historical, the modern, the profound, and even the minutia, amounting to a mountain of thought that Taleb intends will "revive the not well known philosophical notion of doxastic commitment, a class of beliefs that go beyond talk, and to which we are committed enough to take personal risks." In other words, Taleb wants us to do, not just think about doing.
If I attempted to cover all the ground in Antifragile, this post would be much too lengthy, so let's jump to Chapter 13: Lecturing Birds on How to Fly. Taleb opens the chapter reflecting on the wheeled suitcase. The wheel was invented some six thousand years ago, and yet, until four decades ago no one thought to put wheels directly on the bottom of a suitcase! What does it take, he seems to be asking, for us to get smarter--practically smarter--faster?
All those brilliant minds, usually disheveled and rumpled, who go to faraway conferences to discuss Gödel, Shmodel, Riemann's Conjecture, quarks, shmarks, had to carry their suitcases through airport terminals without thinking about applying their brain to such an insignificant transportation problem....And even if these brilliant minds had applied their supposedly overdeveloped brains to such an obvious and trivial problem, they probably would not have gotten anywhere.
I included this quote above because it encapsulates both Taleb's voice, somewhat haughty and bemused, but also because it reveals a truth made both complex and simple by his explanation. Ingenuity is not the property of the intellectually rich, and sometimes complexity impairs us from creating simple solutions for common problems. Taleb, of course, puts it differently, within the lines of his thesis:
This tells us something about the way we map the future. We humans lack imagination, to the point of not even knowing what tomorrow's important things look like. We use randomness to spoon-feed us with discoveries--which is why antifragility is necessary.
And from the wheeled suitcase, Taleb takes us through the "sneaky...process of discovery and implementation" in medicine and technology, and his deduction that "both governments and universities have done very, very little for innovation and discoveries, precisely because, in addition to their blinding rationalism, they look for the complicated, the lurid, the newsworthy, the narrated, the scientistic, and the grandiose, rarely for the wheel on the suitcase." And so, he concludes: "antifragility...supersedes intelligence." And the risk of believing that all invention comes from great minds (not simple necessity) is that we are hindered by the belief that these great minds can take credit for "lecturing birds on how to fly" when the birds knew how to fly all along.
Antifragile is not an easy book. But, despite its length and breadth of reference, it is a readable book. The constant feed of wisdom--or perhaps awareness is a better word--that generates instant inner reflection ("Hey, I do that!") is intoxicating, page-turning. It's a great trip landing on Nassim Nicholas Taleb's planet, a planet displaying such big and rangy ideas, a topographical map could be constructed as a model for the snaking rivers, the breath-robbing mountains, and the dusty valleys, of his knowledge. Like any adventure, you may be taxed from the constant rough esoteric terrain, but that mirrors what Taleb is advocating in Antifragile. Embrace the volatility "to live in a world that does not want us to understand it, a world whose charm comes from our inability to truly understand it."
Put another way:
The best way to verify that you are alive is by checking if you like variations. Remember that food would not have a taste if it weren't for hunger; results are meaningless without effort, joy without sadness, convictions without certainty, and an ethical life isn't so when stripped of personal risk.
(All quotations taken from advanced copy; Hardcover available November 27th, 2012)
Posted Oct. 5, 2012 11:20 a.m. by dylan
In - 800 CEO Read Blog
➻ First up, we look to James Hannaham at the Village Voice for a review and interview as Stats Man Nate Silver Releases His First Book, The Signal and the Noise. "Speaking with the Odds God," Hannaham discusses Silver's rise from semi-obscurity in the world of sabermetric baseball statistics to wild success on the national stage in the political prediction game. It all came to pass because of the remarkable accuracy of his predictions during the 2008 presidential election on his FiveThirtyEight blog (538 is the number of votes in the electoral college)—which has since been picked up by The New York Times.
That site proved to be one of the most accurate political meta-polls during the 2008 presidential race (he called every state except Indiana) and continues to testify to Silver's influence. So swift was his rise to King of Geekdom (TIME named him to its 100 Most Influential People list in '09) that his followers lacked a bible. Now, though, he's releasing his first book, The Signal and the Noise (The Penguin Press, 352 pp., $27.95), a substantial, wide-ranging, and potentially important gauntlet of probabilistic thinking based on actual data thrown at the feet of a culture determined to sweep away silly liberal notions like "facts." For Silver, the key to successful prognostication is a clear-eyed examination of the difference between "noise," misleading or biased methods or faulty data sets, and "signal"—that which is likely to turn out to be true, and whose significance often seems obvious in hindsight.
In 13 chapters, he covers a panorama of the unpredictable and the state of mankind's ability to conquer it. Or come close, anyway.
"This is not a postmodern kind of book," says Silver ... "It's saying there is truth, but we can't know it, and it's hard for people to accept both those propositions. It requires you to accept that you'll always be a flawed, imperfect creature who's struggling to get better." ...
As far as Silver is concerned, no one in a business or institution that relies on prediction can afford to accept their preconceived notions as fact.
I think this will make for a fascinating, down-to-earth contrast to a highly anticipated book being released by Random House next month, Nassim Nicholas Taleb's Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder.
➻ Next we turn from "the unpredictable and the state of mankind's ability to conquer it" to Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows, A Post on the Occasion of Facebook’s Billionth Member, and the mankind's future capacity to experience—and/or conquer—boredom.
Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that David Byrne was correct and that the distinguishing characteristic of paradise is the absence of event, the total nonexistence of the new. Everything is beautifully, perfectly unflummoxed. If we further assume that hell is the opposite of heaven, then the distinguishing characteristic of hell is unrelenting eventfulness, the constant, unceasing arrival of the new. Hell is a place where something always happens. One would have to conclude, on that basis, that the great enterprise of our time is the creation of hell on earth. Every new smartphone should have, affixed to its screen, one of those transparent, peel-off stickers on which is written, “Abandon hope, ye who enter here.”
Forget the Turing Test. We’ll know that computers are really smart when computers start getting bored. If you assign a computer a profoundly tedious task like spotting potential house numbers in video images, and then you come back a couple of hours later and find that the computer is checking its Facebook feed or surfing porn, then you’ll know that artificial intelligence has truly arrived.
There’s another angle here, though. As many have pointed out, one thing that networked computers are supremely good at is preventing their users from experiencing boredom. A smartphone is the most perfect boredom-eradication device ever created. (Some might argue that smartphones don’t so much eradicate boredom as lend to boredom an illusion of excitement, but that’s probably just semantics.) To put it another way, what networked computers are doing is stealing from humans one of the essential markers of human intelligence: the capacity to experience boredom.
And that brings us back to the Talking Heads. For the non-artificially intelligent, boredom is not an end-state; it’s a portal to transcendence—a way out of quotidian eventfulness and into some higher state of consciousness. Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens, but that’s a place that the computer, and, as it turns out, the computer-enabled human, can never visit. In hell, the house numbers, or their equivalents, never stop coming, and we never stop being amused by them.
It's also a place where partisan cable news can never visit, but that's a story for another time.
➻ In the meantime, we turn to The Daily Caller (cofounded by cable news pundit Tucker Carlson) and Matt K. Lewis's review of a book on the positive possibilities of the networked age that Michael has covered extensively here on this blog—Future Perfect. Lewis writes that Steven Johnson’s ‘Future Perfect’ Puts the Political Left and Right on Notice:
Author Steven Johnson is a rare individual these days: A genuine optimist. His new book, Future Perfect: The Case For Progress In A Networked Age, preaches a gospel of an emerging worldview that “doesn’t map on to the existing left/right political categories.”
He swears he’s not selling “cyber-utopianism,” but Johnson believes the “peer network” structure of the Internet can help us meld the best qualities of conservatism and liberalism into a more visionary third way.
And he might have a point.
Consider the website Kickstarter, which allows individuals to voluntarily support creative projects. As Johnson notes, the site is “on track to distribute more money than the National Endowment for the Arts” (a potentially positive development for conservatives who lament having their tax dollars involuntarily go to such projects.) Why couldn’t, as Johnson suggests, local governments incorporate a similar sort of “participatory budgeting” model to decide which projects to fund?
This might sound like a quixotic attempt at “direct democracy,” but Johnson (who is the author of several other terrific books, including “Where Good Ideas Come From” and “Everything Bad is Good For You”) insists that finding new solutions requires casting aside cynicism and embracing optimism.
And it is refreshing to read an ostensibly political book in which the author genuinely seems to have no ideological agenda or partisan ax to grind. Johnson’s advice, thus, rings at least sincere.
“I think one of the key things that the Left needs to acknowledge is that the libertarian position that kind of comes down from Hayek,” he tells me, “in the long run, will outperform and out innovate centralized bureaucratic institutions.”
But while Johnson dismisses the notion that elite planners can solve all our problems, he also argues that tomorrow’s best innovative solutions won’t come exclusively from the market-based sources. “The idea is not to replace the market with the state,” he avers, “but to enhance and extend the market with other decentralized systems that aren’t necessarily driven by profit incentives.”
If this sounds naive, think of Wikipedia. Thousands of people voluntarily contribute to creating and maintaining this online encyclopedia — for free. (As author Dan Pink, has pointed out, sometimes financial incentives actually reduce motivation and participation.)
Achieving Johnson’s vision won’t be easy. A lot of people are invested in preserving the current political system. ”The Left needs to get rid of the idea [of] top-down, state-centralized master plans [and] big, top-heavy unions — all of these things that have been institutions of the left for a hundred years,” he says.
“But the Right has to give up the idea that everything is going to be solved by the market.”
➻ One thing Douglas Rushkoff would like you to know about the future is that the iPhone is Not Your Saviour
Yes, we've been here before.
First time, for me anyway, was the CD-ROM craze. Flashy interactivity, new authoring tools and seemingly infinite storage space led many media publishers to believe that CD-ROMs would be to the digital era what books were to that of text. They obsolesced themselves as a viable format (mostly by being slow and boring) even before networking speeds made disks irrelevant.
The dotcom boom appeared just as infinite to those in the know. While Amazon has been left standing, Pets.com and Etoys crashed as quickly as they rose. The vast majority of online retailers surprised the Wall Street analysts betting on them.
Social media was supposed to solve that problem for the tech industry and NASDAQ alike, but climaxed in the IPO of Facebook, a disappointment so far-reaching it has dragged dozens of social media companies along with it, and sent investors and entrepreneurs looking for greener pastures.
Like wireless handheld devices and the apps running on them.
Everywhere I turn, every conference I attend, every magazine story I read seems to be based on one aspect of these technologies or another. Everyone is hard at work on an iPhone app that lists, maps, or socializes some data set in some new visual way. Pictures over text, text over maps, restaurants close to subways, or apps showing subways with WiFi to download more apps.
Don't get me wrong: Wireless is big, and these devices are here to stay, at least until we get comfortable with apps being embedded in objects and technology being implanted in our bodies. And while the opportunity for corporations to make billions on these apps may be overstated, we may still see a new peer-to-peer marketplace emerge between independent developers and the users of their bounty of applications.
But the extent to which entrepreneurs, developers, and even columns like this one depend on Apple and the rest of the wireless computing industry for new grist far exceeds their true impact or potential.
So go, get an iPhone. Enjoy it. But find something or someone else to save you.
Or, possibly, maybe you can find something or someone else to save? It would probably be more rewarding.
➻ And then there's Dave Pollard, author of Finding the Sweet Spot: The Natural Entrepreneur's Guide to Responsible, Sustainable, Joyful Work, who would like you to know Why We Cannot Save the World at all.
➻ So, I suppose the Mayans had it right. It's the end of the world.