Category Archives: Book Notes

Book Notes: ‘The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century,’ by George Friedman

From time to time I share notes about the books I’ve been reading, or have revisited recently after many years.

These posts are meant to help me remember what I’ve learned, and to point out titles I think are worth consulting.

For more, see my Book Notes category

Next 100 years

The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century

Published: 2009
ISBN: 9780767923057
Amazon link

Brief Summary

Can anyone really predict what will happen over the next century? Friedman, the founder of geopolitical research firm Stratfor, which analyzes global events for private clients, gives it a shot.

In this 2009 book, he argues that American influence began after the U.S. won the cold war, and will only continue though the 21st century. But it will be tested by factors like an increasingly aggressive Russia and other states like Japan and Mexico.

My notes:

  • Don’t worry about U.S. economic troubles — the book was published in the midst of the Great Recession — the author says, because history shows the U.S. government tends to intervene to prevent total collapse. So the economy will online continue growing
  • Three crucial factors affecting the world order during the 20th century were:
    • The end of the European imperial system
    • The world population quadrupling
    • A revolution in transportation and communications
  • Three important factors during the 21st century will be:
    • The continuation of American power
    • The end of the population boom
    • Technologies to deal with declining populations
  • The main threats to U.S. power will be Middle Eastern states, Russia, Japan and Mexico.

    Russia will continue to expand its territory to recoup its losses after the fall of the Soviet Union. Japan‘s desire for empire will rekindle. Mexico will spell trouble for the U.S. due to demographic issues, with so many people of Mexican descent living in America.

  • Friedman says the U.S. shouldn’t be overly concerned about China, because its history shows ongoing conflict between the poor interior region and the richer coastal areas. Rather than aspiring to expand its territory, Chinese leaders will focus more on tamping down social unrest at home.
  • The U.S. economy is a global power, and will continue to be one, in part because of its military might. The U.S. Navy controls the world’s shipping lanes, crucial for international trade.
  • Cultures move over time from being barbaric to civilized to decadent. The U.S., as a relatively young country, is still in its barbaric stage and is thus willing to wage war in its national interest.
  • Ultimately, military conflicts will move into space, where the U.S. will continue to have the upper hand against rivals.

Book Notes: The Innovator’s Dilemma, by Clayton Christensen

Note: From time to time I share notes about the books I’ve been reading, or have revisited recently after many years.

These posts are meant to help me remember what I’ve learned from books I’ve found especially useful, and to point out to readers titles I think are worth consulting.

For more, see my Book Notes category

Innovatorsdilemma

The Innovator’s Dilemma, by Clayton Christensen

Published: 1997
ISBN: 1633691780
Amazon link

Brief Summary

In this 1997 business classic, Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen pioneered the theory of “disruptive innovation,” the phenomenon in which upstart firms displace established ones by taking advantage of emerging technologies.

To really understand what “disruption” means, avoid 95% of the tech commentary you’ll read on the subject, and go right to the source: this book.

My notes:

  • It’s impossible to avoid the word “disruption” these days. Company X is disrupting company Y, a pundit might say. Or someone at a startup you’ve never heard of will proclaim that their company is “disrupting the [fill in the blank] space.” That sort of thing.

    But people often use the term incorrectly, as a trendy way to say “competing with” or “shaking up” a sector. You should read this book to understand what “disruption” really means.

  • Technological “disruption,” as Christensen illustrates through historical examples, is what happens when upstart companies dislodge dominant firms with their often less expensive products that are at first deemed to be insufficient to meet large customers’ needs. But then things shift and the previously inferior offerings displace the mainstream ones.
  • For example, 3.-5-inch disk drives came along that larger manufacturers eschewed because most of their customers needed bigger ones. But then desktop PCs rose to prominence, and they required smaller drives, and it was too late for older manufactures, who hadn’t introduced newer products, to catch up with their faster-moving rivals.

    Another example: Small Honda motorbikes didn’t take off at first in the U.S., but then people realized they were great for dirt biking, and even getting around town, and they eventually disrupted companies making larger motorbikes.

    And so called “mini mills” at first offered lower-quality products than larger steel mills, but then their technology improved rapidly, and they disrupted traditional integrated mills.

  • Crucially, some forget that the “dilemma” in the title refers to the fact that many well-run, highly profitable firms are often disrupted despite that the fact they seem to be doing all the right things.

    That is, they are making money, satisfying their customers, and delivering value to shareholders. The dilemma is that precisely by doing those things, however, they become vulnerable to new, disruptive technologies.

    They are giving customers what they want, so why should managers change course? A major problem: Customers often don’t know what they’re going to want a few years down the line, and when market demand shifts, an upstart firm may have come along and already started offering it.

Book Notes: The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon

Note: From time to time I share notes about the books I’ve been reading, or have revisited after many years. For more such posts, see the Book Notes category

everything_store

The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon, by Brad Stone

Published: 2013
ISBN: 0316219282
Amazon link

Brief Summary

The fascinating story of the rise of Amazon, which is the story of Jeff Bezos himself. He is brilliant, analytical, highly competitive, and driven. Bezos built Amazon not only to create the best contemporary company of its kind, vanquishing all rivals, but engineered systems to innovate and continue to succeed well into the future.

My notes:

  • I read this book as part of the research for my Wall Street Journal story, published in November, about Amazon’s rapid progress here in India. I wanted to learn as much as I could about Amazon. I couldn’t have picked a better book.
  • Author Brad Stone, who covered Amazon for years for the likes of The New York Times and Newsweek, provides the fascinating story of Bezos’s personal background, his early academic success, and his bold decision to leave a high-paying Wall Street job to move out west and found Amazon.
  • The book is not a hagiography, however. Bezos and Amazon are presented warts and all. Anecdotes show the Amazon founder to be at times ruthless in his quest for success, and other times enormously generous. And the high-pressure nature of Amazon’s corporate culture is plain to see.
  • I’m old enough to recall the dotcom bust, but “The Everything Store” serves as a good reminder to younger readers just how bleak things got for Amazon, when its stock fell and many believed one of its e-commerce competitors, eBay, would be the runaway success, not Amazon.
  • From a communications perspective, it’s interesting to note the book highlights several instances when new public announcements have been timed over the years to conincide with competitors’ quarterly results, as a way to steal their thunder. And Bezos himself is a master at messaging, honing “Jeff-isms” to express the company’s point of view in a pithy manner, often deflect various criticisms of the company along the way.
  • If you want to learn more about Bezoz, Amazon, and its culture, Stone has helpfully provided a list of “a dozen books widely read by executives and employees that are integral to understanding the company. Some of the titles include the novel “The Remains of the Day,” books by Sam Walton and Alan Greenberg, and modern-day business classics like “The Innovator’s Dilemma” and “The Black Swan.”

Book Notes — Fooled by Randomness, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Note: From time to time I share notes about the books I’ve been reading, or have revisited after many years. For more such posts, see the Book Notes category

Fooled by randomness

Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Published: 2001
ISBN: 1400067936
Amazon link
My rating: 7/10

The book in three sentences:

The world is mostly random and non-linear, but we are hard-wired to construct narratives that make sense of it all. What we attribute to individuals’ and organizations’ skill is often mostly due to luck. We trick ourselves into thinking that what seems unlikely to happen — like the appearance of a black swan — will never actually take place.

My notes:

  • This is Taleb’s first book, published in 2004, before his more well-known “The Black Swan” came out three years later. Here, he lays out his thinking on why we are “fooled by randomness,” or built to make sense of a world that often is nonsensical.
  • Taleb relates his experience as a trader, taking an unconventional approach to investing, to illustrate how his grasp of how the world has brought him success. Unlike those around him, for example, he eschews news because its signal-to-noise ration is too high. A proud iconoclast, he assails journalists, economists, academics, MBAs (of which he is one) and other investors for being blindly taken in by randomness.
  • A passage from the prologue sums up Taleb’s thinking:

    We are still very close to our ancestors who roamed the savannah. The formation of our beliefs is fraught with superstitions — even today (I might say, especially today). Just as one day some primitive tribesman scratched his nose, saw rain falling, and developed an elaborate method of scratching his note to bring on the much-needed rain, we link economic prosperity to some rate cut by the Federal Reserve Board, or the success of a company with appointment of the new president “at the helm…”

    This confusion strikes people of different persuasions; the literature professor invests a deep meaning into a mere coincidental occurrence of word patterns, while the economist proudly detects “regularities” and “anomalies” in data that are plain random.

    At the cost of appearing biased, I have to say that the literary mind can be intentionally prone to the confusion between noise and meaning, that is, between a randomly constructed arrangement and a precisely intended message.

  • Perhaps because Nassim’s work is so influential — people often refer to “black swan” events, especially in the tech world — I feel as if rather than introduce me to a radical new way of thinking, this book reinforced many of Taleb’s arguments, which I had already internalized. Some of the best parts of the book, in my mind, are his anecdotes about colorful characters from the Wall Street world.
  • I must say I found what seemed to be his focus on proving his intellectual superiority to those around him to be mildly off-putting. Still, I found it quite entertaining and enriching. If you set out to read this book not as a nonfiction guide to his way of thinking but as a personal essay, which is how it structured, I think you’ll find it enjoyable and enlightening.
  • Book Notes — The Dog Stars, by Peter Heller

    Note: For some time I have kept, on index cards, written notes about the books I’ve read. I decided to share some of these thoughts here, and will be posting them, one by one on individual books, in no particular order. I’ll group them all together on a central page later. For now I’m assigning them all to my Book Notes category. Thanks to Derek Sivers for the inspiration.

    The dog stars

    The Dog Stars, by Peter Heller
    Published: 2013
    ISBN: 1611736137
    Amazon link
    Rating: 8/10

    Brief recap: A beautifully written, hope-infused post-apocalyptic novel. Yes, you read that right.

    My notes:

    • I am not ashamed to admit I an enamored of post-apocalyptic fiction. Like another well-known book about a disaster-struck world, Cormack McCarthy’s “The Road,” this novel tells the story of handful of people left behind after most of the world’s population has been wiped out. But unlike “The Road,” as some reviewers have noted, this book — while it does contains some very real nastiness — is dominated by the protagonist’s love for his deceased wife, his bond with his beloved dog, and his hope that the future may bring salvation of some sort. In other words, it is strangely optimistic. And very moving.

    • Narratively speaking, Heller does an excellent job recounting, in bits and pieces via flashbacks, the sickness that befell humanity. But rather than get into highly specific medical or scientific details, he hints at symptoms and theories, leaving the reader to ponder precisely what happened. Similarly, the reader gleans just enough details about the how chaos unfolds to still leave some questions unanswered. This is not, in other words, “World War Z,” replete with gory details (and zombie attacks), viewed from some future standpoint.

    • The novel is set in Colorado, and there are some really gorgeous passages here about nature: mountainous vistas, deer, trout. Striking stuff.

    • This is a book aviation buffs will enjoy, as the narrator, Hig, lives with his partner at an abandoned airport. Hig frequently takes his Cessna out to patrol surrounding areas and visit other survivors, and the book has some detailed passages about the experience of flying.

    Book Notes — ‘Never Eat Alone,’ by Keith Ferrazzi and Tahl Raz

    Note: For some time I have kept, on index cards, written notes about the books I’ve read. I decided to share some of these thoughts here, and will be posting them, one by one on individual books, in no particular order. I’ll group them all together on a central page later. For now I’m assigning them all to my Book Notes category. Thanks to Derek Sivers for the inspiration.

    Never eat alone

    Never Eat Alone…and Other Secrets to Success, One Relationship at a Time
    By Keith Ferrazzi and Tahl Raz
    Published: 2005
    ISBN: 0385346654
    Amazon link
    Rating: 6/10

    Brief recap: A popular book about the power of networking. I didn’t find it revelatory, but appreciate the central theme, which is common sense: that you should help friends just to help them, not because you expect something in return. In other words, as the author writes, networking can be a huge advantage – but don’t keep score.

    My notes:

    • Ferrazzi relates his story of growing up in the U.S. in a lower-middle class family, outside of elite circles. One he became friends with influential people, however, he discovered that they helped him in school and work, and that – of course – it’s much better to be on the inside than on the outside looking in.
    • Anyone who’s read books about the power of networking is probably familiar with most of the notions mentioned here. These include: the importance of building relationships with business contacts over the long term; the importance of being kind to assistants and other gatekeepers; why it’s key to follow up after you meet new contacts in order to stay in touch; how to make the most of meeting people at conferences; how to make small talk; etc.

    • My main takeaway from the book, though, was that it reinforced the the importance of trust in building career capital via the relationships you make, over time. As Ferrazzi writes:

    My point is this: Relationships are solidified by trust. Institutions are built on it. You gain trust not by asking what people can do for you, to paraphrase an earlier Kennedy, but what you can do for others. In other words, the currency of real networking is not greed but generosity.

    Business cycles ebb and flow; your friends and trusted associates remain.

    Book Notes — ‘Deep Work,’ by Cal Newport

    Note: For some time I have kept, on index cards, written notes about the books I’ve read. I decided to share some of these thoughts here, and will be posting them, one by one on individual books, in no particular order. I’ll group them all together on a central page later. For now I’m assigning them all to my Book Notes category. Thanks to Derek Sivers for the inspiration.

    Deep work

    Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World
    By Cal Newport
    Published: 2016
    ISBN: 1455586692
    Amazon link
    Rating: 9/10

    Brief recap: Newport, an assistant professor of computer science at Georgetown University, argues that knowledge workers must devote themselves entirely to the most sophisticated and valuable contributions they can make – they must concentrate on what he calls “deep work.” Common sense, yes, but the book provides some compelling insights and plenty of practical tips. Highly recommended.

    My notes:

    • What is deep work? It’s the core stuff we are trained to do, for which we’ve developed deep expertise – the crux of what makes us experts in our field.

      Or, as Newport writes:

      Deep Work: Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.

      What isn’t deep work – or, as he calls it, “shallow work”? Newport says it’s activities that a recent college graduate could learn how to do relatively quickly.

      So, if you’re a consultant, let’s say, you must devote yourself entirely to your most important work, like producing deliverables for clients or bosses. Eschew all but the most critical email, needless meetings, social media and other distractions – even though it may seem like this stuff is important to your job.

    • Social media is largely a waste of time, and should avoided, Newport says. But our culture is so techno-centric – we are living in Neil Postman’s “technolopy”, he writes – that this is difficult:

    Deep work is at a severe disadvantage in a technopoly because it builds on values like quality, craftsmanship, and mastery that are decidedly old-fashioned and nontechnological. Even worse, to support deep work often requires the rejection of much of what is new and high-tech. Deep work is exiled in favor of more distracting high-tech behaviors, like the professional use of social media, not because the former is empirically inferior to the latter. Indeed, if we had hard metrics relating the impact of these behaviors on the bottom line, our current technopoly would likely crumble…

    • After laying out, in the first half of the book, why deep work is important, Newport goes out to provide some tips for building more deep work into one’s life. A few that I liked, and have since implemented:
      • Keep a scorecard: log not only how many hours per day you’re able to spend on deep work, but track with a paper and pen, and post in a conspicuous place, details on when you’ve reached important milestones, such as completing important projects.
      • Train yourself to embrace boredom in order to build focus: Newport notes that a key requirement of deep work is the ability to concentrate deeply for long stretches of time, and that means resisting the temptation to surf the web or check in on social media when boredom strikes.

      • Ponder your work when walking. In a notable passage, Newport says he often takes long walks to and from his office, devoting the time to thinking about problems that are vexing him at work, searching for solutions.

      • That said, guard your downtime: Though Newport is a successful academic, publishing regularly, he argues that because he consistently focuses on deep work, he doesn’t have to work marathon hours. This is crucial because focusing is more mentally demanding than shallow work, and the brain needs time to relax. Newport even describes how he mentally prepares to leave his office every day, saying out loud to himself that he is finishing his work and shutting off his computer, serving as a reminder that it’s time to tune out a bit.

    • Newport earlier authored another interesting book, “So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love.”

      The premise of that work: Follow your passion is terrible advice. True work satisfaction often comes only after a good deal of time, once we’ve developed expertise. So pick something you’re good at, that you like, and that society values. Then develop a craftsman’s mindset, honing your skills over time. Also worth checking out.

    Book Notes — ‘Den of Thieves,’ by James B. Stewart

    Note: For some time I have kept, on index cards, written notes about the books I’ve read. I decided to share some of these thoughts here, and will be posting them, one by one on individual books, in no particular order. I’ll group them all together on a central page later. For now I’m assigning them all to my Book Notes category. Thanks to Derek Sivers for the inspiration.

    Den of thieves

    Den of Thieves
    By James B. Stewart
    Published: 1991
    ISBN: 067179227X
    Amazon link
    Rating: 10/10

    Brief recap: An absolute classic. Pulitzer-prize winning Jim Stewart tells, though in-depth reporting and riveting storytelling, the story of the insider trading scandals that rocked Wall Street in the 1980s.

    My notes:

    • Ivan Boesky, Michael Milken, Dennis Levine, Martin Seigel – you’ve heard their names in connection with insider trading, and may remember some specifics of their deeds.

      In this book, Stewart – with whom I was lucky enough to study at journalism school – lays out in incredible detail what motivated them to break the law, precisely how they did it, and how they were caught.

      The book clearly communicates what a powerful factor greed can be, and how the characters in the story acted with brazen disregard for the law. Also, even people who are familiar with Wall Street excess might be surprised with just how much money the industry’s titans made (and make) – yachts, helicopters, lavish estates, it’s all here.

    • The book remains relevant even today. As Stewart writes in a new introduction in 2010, after the global financial crisis:

    When I finished writing Den of Thieves, in 1991, I ended with a question: Can it happen again?

    Nearly twenty years later, we know the answer: it did happen again. Which begs the same question: are we destined to repeat history yet again?

    I believe the answer lies in these pages, since this is ultimately a story not about insider trading or hostile takeovers but about human nature. In the most recent financial crisis, the setting has changed to subprime mortgages, asset-back securities, and exotic derivatives. Yet again, the power of vast sums of money to overpower everything in their path – laws, regulations, ethics, even common sense – has been on ample display. And once again, in the face of public outrage, there have been calls for reform.

    • Although “Den of Thieves” contains descriptions of complex matters like financial instruments and elaborate financing arrangements (not to mention a huge cast of characters), it is still a page turner – even at over 500 pages long.
    • Stewart reconstructs, in vivid scenes, how everything unfolded, putting the reader in the middle of the action. (For more on how Stewart tells stories, see his excellent 1998 book “Follow the Story: How to Write Successful Nonfiction.”)

    Book Notes — ‘Freedom,’ By Jonathan Franzen

    Note: I have long kept written notes on index cards about the books I read. I decided to share some of these thoughts here, and will be posting them, one by one on individual books, in no particular order. I’ll group them all together on a central page later. Thanks to Derek Sivers for the inspiration.

    2016 06 22 franzen purity

    Purity
    By Jonathan Franzen
    Published: 2015
    Read: April 2016
    ISBN: 0374239215
    Amazon link
    Rating: 9/10

    Brief recap: A novel about youth, ambition, and desire, packed with sharp cultural observations. I loved it, as I have loved most of Franzen’s fiction.

    My notes:

    • The novel follows protagonist Pip Tyler as she seeks out direction in her life and tries to negotiate her relationship with her mother – and her father, who she didn’t know growing up.

    • While the novel is nearly 600 pages long, I found it to be extremely fast-paced, and loved the intricacy of the plot, with scences boucning between decades, both in the U.S. and in Germany.

    • I liked Franzen’s description of the geography in Bolivia, where part of the novel takes place.

    • I can’t excerpt it here because it present a major spolier, but the language describing one key character’s sudden demise was striking. I read that passage again and again.

    • My sense is that if you liked Franzen’s earlier works (as I did), such as “The Corrections” and “Freedoms,” you’ll like this one, too.