I've been meaning to write out the books that have influenced me in the past few years... so Mike's request for reading post got me started.
I also got inspired to do this on my trip to the west coast last week. During interviews with two well known thought leaders: Brian Behlendorf author of open-source web server software Apache, and now CTO of ColabNet was talking the history of the steel industry to illustrate disruptive innovation. Material out of Clayton Christianson's The Innovator's Solution. And Dan Gilmore, tech/business guru/journalist at the San Jose Mercury News, was talking about the importance of keeping the broadband and wireless spectrum free of corporate manipulation, a la Larry Lessig's Code. Rachel and I had a good laugh calling them out on it (partially because we had both books in the car), and led to some good discussions. But really made me realize how influential good books are, and the need to keep up.
So here it goes,
Nonzero : The Logic of Human Destiny
Robert Wright's attempt to show that there are
a. zero sum games, and
b. non-zero sum games.
He contends that most advancement in history has come from playing the non-zero sum variety. Co-operation, establishment of government, and many more. He also talks about the spread of technology, most importantly reading and agriculture.
Talks about dangers and opportunities today of technology becoming more powerful, more accessible, and easier to use. Allows smaller groups to become more powerful (think terrorists).
from the jacket:
In Nonzero Wright asserts that, ever since the primordial ooze, life has followed a basic pattern. Organisms and human societies alike have grown more complex by mastering the challenges of internal cooperation. Wright's narrative ranges from fossilized bacteria to vampire bats, from stone-age villages to the World Trade Organization, uncovering such surprises as the benefits of barbarian hordes and the useful stability of feudalism. Here is history endowed with moral significance–a way of looking at our biological and cultural evolution that suggests, refreshingly, that human morality has improved over time, and that our instinct to discover meaning may itself serve a higher purpose. Insightful, witty, profound, Nonzero offers breathtaking implications for what we believe and how we adapt to technology's ongoing transformation of the world.
Linked: How Everything Is Connected to Everything Else and What It Means
Talks about intricate networks that are at the core of most complex systems. Says that new breakthrus in math and other sciences are allowing us to explain these networks and how they affect our world. Here's their take though
Life is encoded by a complex network of molecules hidden within the cell. The Internet is a complex network of computers connected by wires. The economy is a complex network of companies, consumers, and regulatory agencies. Society is a complex network of people connected by friendship, family, and professional ties. It has only been in the past few years that we realized how important a role these networks play in shaping the behavior of most complex systems. We learned that understanding networks is the crucial prerequisite to comprehending complexity. Therefore, many scientists from very different disciplines have started a frontal attack to understand the webs with which nature surrounds us. One of the most surprising findings is that most networks in nature are very similar to each other. The social network is not that different from the four billion year old chemical network within our cells or the decade old World Wide Web.
and what they have in common
For several decades, networks were believed to be fundamentally random, i.e. it was assumed that the nodes, such as the pages of the World Wide Web, the people on the society, or the chemicals of the cell, are randomly wired together. Yet, as we started looking at real networks, we noticed some reoccurring elements in all of them that increasingly undermine the random hypothesis. On the World Wide Web my research group documented the existence of a few websites, such as Yahoo.com, that have an extraordinary number of links pointing to them. In society sociologists have noticed the existence of connectors, a few individuals with an extraordinarily large number of acquaintances. In the cell my group and others noticed the existence of a few molecules that participate in just about all chemical reactions. These hubs, as they came to be called, could simply not be explained using the random network hypothesis. They were telling us that some common laws must exist, shared by all networks, which are responsible for the hubs.
Basically... there is such a thing as the 800-pound gorilla... and you better know who he is.
The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference
Following from Linked comes Malcom Gladwell's wildly popular tipping point. This was a very hot business book for years. Makes you think about rapidly changing systems, that seem inexplicable. You need to think about them as an epidemic.
The best way to understand the dramatic transformation of unknown books into bestsellers, or the rise of teenage smoking, or the phenomena of word of mouth or any number of the other mysterious changes that mark everyday life," writes Malcolm Gladwell, "is to think of them as epidemics. Ideas and products and messages and behaviors spread just like viruses do." Although anyone familiar with the theory of memetics will recognize this concept, Gladwell's The Tipping Point has quite a few interesting twists on the subject. For example, Paul Revere was able to galvanize the forces of resistance so effectively in part because he was what Gladwell calls a "Connector": he knew just about everybody, particularly the revolutionary leaders in each of the towns that he rode through. But Revere "wasn't just the man with the biggest Rolodex in colonial Boston," he was also a "Maven" who gathered extensive information about the British. He knew what was going on and he knew exactly whom to tell. The phenomenon continues to this day--think of how often you've received information in an e-mail message that had been forwarded at least half a dozen times before reaching you.
Gladwell develops these and other concepts (such as the "stickiness" of ideas or the effect of population size on information dispersal) through simple, clear explanations and entertainingly illustrative anecdotes.
Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software
Describes properties of emergent systems. You can get a bunch of "dumb entities" together that do nothing on their own, if you are under the right circumstances, or hit a critical mass of these dumb things, they start to act in a totally different and sometimes "intelligent" way. Talks about everything from ants to cities.
Jared Diamond's Pulitzer prize winning book reviews human history and explains, damn convincingly, why some countries are developed and dominant today, and others are stuck in poverty and have little influence. This powerful read dispels racist views of history (people in warm climates are lazy because food was so easy to get... etc). Says that these factors influenced the history of humanity:
from Kirkus Reviews
MacArthur fellow and UCLA evolutionary biologist Diamond (The Third Chimpanzee, 1992, etc.) takes as his theme no less than the rise of human civilizations. On the whole this is an impressive achievement, with nods to the historians, anthropologists, and others who have laid the groundwork. Diamond tells us that the impetus for the book came from a native New Guinea friend, Yali, who asked him, ``Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?'' The long and short of it, says Diamond, is biogeography. It just so happened that 13,000 years ago, with the ending of the last Ice Age, there was an area of the world better endowed with the flora and fauna that would lead to the take-off toward civilization: that valley of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers we now call the Fertile Crescent. There were found the wild stocks that became domesticated crops of wheat and barley. Flax was available for the development of cloth. There was an abundance of large mammals that could be domesticated: sheep, goats, cattle. Once agriculture is born and animals domesticated, a kind of positive feedback drives the growth toward civilization. People settle down; food surpluses can be stored so population grows. And with it comes a division of labor, the rise of an elite class, the codification of rules, and language. It happened, too, in China, and later in Mesoamerica. But the New World was not nearly as abundant in the good stuff. And like Africa, it is oriented North and South, resulting in different climates, which make the diffusion of agriculture and animals problematic. While you have heard many of these arguments before, Diamond has brought them together convincingly.
From the jacket:
Though we share 98 percent of our genes with the chimpanzee, our species evolved into something quite extraordinary. Jared Diamond explores the fascinating question of what in less than 2 percent of our genes has enabled us to found civilizations and religions, develop intricate languages, create art, learn science--and acquire the capacity to destroy all our achievements overnight.
and more descriptively, from Kirkus Reviews
Diamond first reviews human evolution, ending with the great leap forward that he attributes to language. New in this area is a discussion of animal art and communication (e.g., bowerbird constructions, vervet-monkey talk) and creolization (the development of sophisticated human languages from pidgin forms). With respect to other human features, Diamond reprises all the theories you've ever heard about sexual behavior, selection, menstruation, menopause, etc. Ditto for aging. He steers a common- sense course between extremes, opting for the games-theory approach of optimizing one's genes and of group survival. Old-but-not- fertile elders are essential imparters of knowledge for the group. A chapter on self-destructive behaviors (smoking, drinking, drug abuse) offers the peculiar theory that we do it to advertise that we are really superior because we can flaunt handicaps! No mention is made of the fit of the chemicals to receptors in the brain and to circuits evoking pleasure. Later, drawing on his special knowledge of New Guinea, Australia, and Polynesia, and his research on birds, Diamond provides a fascinating if overwhelmingly pessimistic view of human predation through genocide, species and resource destruction, and potential nuclear disaster. Conclusions of continued human, species, and planetary destruction are inescapable, in spite of Diamond's optimism that we can learn from the past and some modest success he has had with conservation programs.In an Uncertain World: Tough Choices from Wall Street to Washington
Robert Rubin of CitiBank, and Clinton's Sec. Treasury, gives a part memoir and part analytical book. He talks about two things that stuck with me. 1. He talks to a lot of people, and writes everything down on a yellow pad... I've picked this up. 2. He evaluates all important decisions in the context of risk.
Interesting insider look at President Bush's first Sec. Treasury.
The Lexus and the Olive Tree: Understanding Globalization
This is Thomas Friedman's look at globalization. Its actually a fun read, and he really trots out the benefits of globalization. But more importantly, gives you his perspective that he's gotten from traveling the world, and talking with the actor's in this drama, from statesmen, to business leaders, to the peasants.
Larry Lessig, talks about how things work.
He thinks four forces act on a system:
He uses a lot of software examples, and thus: code is law. I used Lessig's framework to anaylize cell phone jammers.
Lessig fights the good fight, explaining how we need to keep intellectual property laws strong, but sane.
Herman Daly tells American History as he sees it. And Daly's vision is a lot less rosy then your high school textbook. See America unfolding from the perspective of the guys who've been stepped on.
Classic Chomsky political work. Shows how the media gives a heavily skewed view of the world. An intellectual dissection of the modern media to show how an underlying economics of publishing warps the news.
It's pretty amazing how badly America has treated Latin America over the past 500 years. Prof. Chomsky documents a lot of it here. Learn the details of all the coups we've helped, democracies we've trampled, and economies we've taken advantage of. Puts a real bruise on your image of the US as the good guy.
Hernando DeSoto explains why the West if rich, and the rest are poor. In short: solid property rights and rule of law allow for economic development. I reviewed DeSoto in a little more depth here.
Business Plans for Dummies
Yep, its ok.... laugh.. but it lays out the basics.
Incorporating Your Business for Dummies
Very practical step-by-step guide. Show's you that anyone can incorporate a business.
The Innovator's Dilemma
Haven't read it yet, but its on the list... actually its in my friends apartment in New Orleans.. but you get the picture. This is THE book on innovation. Every conversation about innovation starts with a nod to Clayton Christenson's book. Basically, here's the dilemma:
Little startup companies can go after small niche markets. They can attack with speed (quick decision making process), they can risk a lot, and can release imperfect products without having to worry about sullying their brand. Big companies can't, and don' want to go after these tiny markets.
Problem for the big companies because these little niche markets turn into big markets quick. They're then wiped out by the little guy.
The Innovator's Solution: Creating and Sustaining Successful Growth
Clayton comes back with his new book (which I just finished) to explain what can be done about this. He thinks its really hard for established firms to keep up. But what they can do is look at good business theory. You need to look at the conditions around your products/services, competitive environment.
from the cover
Drawing on years of in-depth research and illustrated by company examples across many industries, Christensen and Raynor argue that innovation can be a predictable process that delivers sustainable, profitable growth. They identify the forces that cause managers to make bad decisions as they package and shape new ideas—and offer new frameworks to help managers create the right conditions, at the right time, for a disruption to succeed. The Innovator’s Solution addresses a wide range of issues, including:
• How can we tell if an idea has disruptive potential?
• Which competitive situations favor incumbents, and which favor entrants?
• Which customer segments are primed to embrace a new offering?
• Which activities should we outsource, and which should we keep in-house?
• How should we structure and fund a new venture?
• How do we choose the right managers to lead it?
• How can we position ourselves where profits will be made in the future?
Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution
Amory Lovins goes out to change the world. Book explores the opportunities for businesses in an era of approaching environmental limits.
From the Natural Capitalism site:
Natural capital refers to the natural resources and ecosystem services that make possible all economic activity, indeed all life. These services are of immense economic value; some are literally priceless, since they have no known substitutes. Yet current business practices typically fail to take into account the value of these assets—which is rising with their scarcity. As a result, natural capital is being degraded and liquidated by the wasteful use of such resources as energy, materials, water, fiber, and topsoil.
The first of natural capitalism's four interlinked principles, therefore, is radically increased resource productivity. Implementing just this first principle can significantly improve a firm's bottom line, and can also help finance the other three. They are: redesigning industry on biological models with closed loops and zero waste; shifting from the sale of goods (for example, light bulbs) to the provision of services (illumination); and reinvesting in the natural capital that is the basis of future prosperity.
How the Mind Works
Steven Pinker looks at the mind from an evolutionary perspective. You can get a better idea of why we think and act the way we do if you think about the issues in from a Darwinian perspective.
Redux of Amazon review
Why do fools fall in love? Why does a man's annual salary, on average, increase $600 with each inch of his height? When a crack dealer guns down a rival, how is he just like Alexander Hamilton, whose face is on the ten-dollar bill? How do optical illusions function as windows on the human soul? Cheerful, cheeky, occasionally outrageous MIT psychologist Steven Pinker answers all of the above and more in his marvelously fun, awesomely informative survey of modern brain science. Pinker argues that Darwin plus canny computer programs are the key to understanding ourselves--but he also throws in apt references to Star Trek, Star Wars, The Far Side, history, literature, W. C. Fields, Mozart, Marilyn Monroe, surrealism, experimental psychology, and Moulay Ismail the Bloodthirsty and his 888 children.
From the cover:
In this extraordinary bestseller, Steven Pinker, one of the world's leading cognitive scientists, does for the rest of the mind what he did for language in his 1994 book, The Language Instinct. He explains what the mind is, how it evolved, and how it allows us to see, think, feel, laugh, interact, enjoy the arts, and ponder the mysteries of life. And he does it with the wit that prompted Mark Ridley to write in the New York Times Book Review, "No other science writer makes me laugh so much. . . . [Pinker] deserves the superlatives that are lavished on him." The arguments in the book are as bold as its title. Pinker rehabilitates some unfashionable ideas, such as that the mind is a computer and that human nature was shaped by natural selection, and challenges fashionable ones, such as that passionate emotions are irrational, that parents socialize their children, and that nature is good and modern society corrupting.
The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature
Pinker continues and expands his work from How the Mind Works. Dives into the Nature vs. Nurture debate from a extremely well informed, and dispassionate view point.
Perfectly Legal: The Covert Campaign to Rig Our Tax System to Benefit the Super Rich - and Cheat Everybody Else
Made me realize how important taxes are. Its the main way the government effects your life, and redistributes huge amounts of money. Shows how the super-rich have been working hard to pay incredibly little. Not some crack pot book, David Johnston the author is a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter at the New York Times. The unfortunate title of this book will doom it to be marginalized, which is a shame.
The Roaring Nineties: A New History of the World's Most Prosperous Decade
Joe Stiglitz gives his view of how bad oversight/regulation and greed overheated things. Also discusses some structural shifts of the economy in the 90s.
The End of History and the Last Man
Francis Fukuyama's big book. His thesis is that the combination of liberal democratic government and a capitalist economic system is the final stage state of human history. Tribal government, serfdom, monarchies, fascism, communism have all been tried and failed. Liberal democracies have prevailed. Fukuyama claims that the democratic, capitalist society best, but not perfectly fulfills mans desires. This thesis has been getting attacked hard since 9=11.