SUPERPOWER - ONE MAN'S QUEST TO TRANSFORM AMERICAN ENERGY
By Russell Gold
Renewable Energy - Michael Skelly has Got It!
This book is a valuable addition to the renewable energy story. It details the challenging bureaucratic and operational steps undertaken by an idealistic but still pragmatic infrastructure entrepreneur named Michael Skelly in building out two wind energy start ups. It is necessarily dry in parts, but that reflects the messy reality of generating energy in the United States - the emphasis here being on the (disunited) states as opposed to a more unified and national energy generation and distribution system.
There are two key elements to building a wind-based power system and Skelly built businesses in each. His first business, Zilkha Renewable Energy built the wind energy portfolio that was ultimately acquired and then sold by Goldman Sachs. This involved the laborious process of finding and securing sites - places where the wind blows - surveying maps and driving around windswept towns, gaining community support through local outreach, negotiating leases with landowners and state and local government approvals and then erecting and connecting the turbines to the grid. On the one hand, this was not sexy work but he was able to assemble a team of passionate and smart youngsters who bought into the vision. The company was ultimately sold for over $2 billion.
For his next venture, Skelly embarked on an even more challenging objective. The power grid in the United States grew up in an ad hoc manner at the local and state level. Therefore, it was, by definition, a sub-optimal network as excess power generated by one state could not be easily transferred to another state that needed it. A national grid was required and thus was Clean Line Power formed. Finding companies to build wind farms and power companies to distribute power was not a problem - transporting it from the source to the user was the issue.
Once again, the work was not glamorous and required the buy-in of many constituencies. The reader cannot help but root for Skelly - after eight years of cajoling and wrangling the various parties to sign on to the transmission system, I thought he was going to pull it off. Unfortunately, local politics finally won the day and the company was sold off in bits and pieces. But all was not lost - the entrepreneurs that have come after Skelly are having more success and the merits of a national grid are more accepted today than during Clean Line’s journey.
This book is the latest installment on my journey to understand more about energy and climate change. I recommend "The Prize" and "The Quest" by Daniel Yergin as well as "Hot, Flat and Crowded" by Thomas Friedman. This book rounded out my education by enabling me to better understand the challenges in actually building a renewable energy infrastructure. Gold's book helps the reader appreciate the messy but real challenges in getting from a fossil fueled dominated past to a clean future. In 2001 around 7.7% of total energy produced in the U.S. was from renewable sources - today renewables account for almost 15%. That’s progress but more needs to be done - this book helps the layman understand the issues, the complexities and the possibilities in establishing a viable renewable energy market.
UPHEAVAL - TURNING POINTS FOR NATIONS IN CRISIS
By Jared Diamond
How Geography Influences History
I read this book as it is another of Bill Gates’ recommendations. The author is a Professor of Geography at UCLA and self-described polymath. The premise of this book is that nations can survive trauma through honest self-appraisal, acknowledging responsibility and learning from other nations.
He discusses how seven different nations have dealt with crises of various kinds. Those countries include:
Finland (dealing with Russian expansionist goals)
Chile (dealing with coups)
Indonesia (dealing with post-colonial identity)
Germany (dealing with post-WWII reconstruction)
Australia (dealing with it’s place as a western country next door to Asia)
Japan (dealing with modernization and its impact on culture)
United States - none of the above and all of the above.
He admits at the outset that his approach to these examples is narrative in nature and not based on empirical data or analysis. As such, the tone is conversational and readable but (IMHO) the book fails to live up to its title not because of any inherent failings in the story but rather because the title (Nations in Crisis) is too big and dramatic for the stories being told. At its core, I believe that the story is more about how geography (be it physical location relative to other nations (war-mongering expansionist powers, decaying colonial powers etc), and the natural endowments of the land can lead countries to make decisions that impact their economic health and outlook.
I do not think many Australians (certainly not this one) would describe the country as having survived a crisis, but I would agree the country has evolved with the times and its economic interests lie elsewhere from pre-WWII days (as do those of the U.K.). Times change, economies evolve, communication and transportation systems diminish the tyranny of distance. Recognizing and adapting to those forces is pragmatic but in no way is a form of crisis management.
Diamond takes a slightly different approach in examining the crisis confronting the United States. He sees many of the issues on today’s front pages (or Twitter feeds) such as the polarization of the electorate and the growing economic disequilibrium along with the potential dangers of climate change as being potential crises. He may be right but I suspect that the self-correcting mechanisms of the market will win the day.
Overall, I found the book to be interesting and readable but not nearly as apocalyptic as the title would suggest. As such, it provides some interesting perspectives on historical events but would be better titled “How Geography Influences History - Some Case Studies” - but then I would probably not bother to read a book with such a mundane title.
HOT, FLAT AND CROWDED
By Thomas Friedman
I've wanted to get more educated on climate change for a while but the material I perused was either too technical for a novice or too simplistic to be useful. Furthermore, I wanted to have a baseline of facts and not be swayed by hyperbole from either the climate-denier or proponent side of the issue. Enter Thomas Friedman - I have read and enjoyed a number of his books. Although this book was first published in 2008 the issues Friedman raises seem as pertinent in mid-2019 as they did a decade ago. In this book, he discusses and breaks down the interconnected issues of climate change, indiscriminate energy use, economic and population growth, deforestation and loss of the biodiversity it supports, and petro-politics to provide a compelling argument that we need to act now if we are to reverse the effects of mankind’s harm to the planet.
Friedman has a wonderful ability to shine a light on complex issues in a readable manner using stories from experts to make the science more digestible to us lay folks. I wanted to read this book to better understand the facts surrounding climate change and what some predict will be the greatest existential threat to mankind since Adam was a boy. Now that I have read the book, I think it is time to settle on some simple metrics that can be easily understood and agreed upon by all parties. There are so many intermingled parts to the climate ecosystem, that a simple scorecard would help everyone focus on what’s been done and what remains to be done.
Some interesting facts (and opinions) highlighted in the book include:
Climate change skeptics often confuse weather and climate. Weather is the day-to-day state of the atmosphere and its short-term variation, whereas climate is the weather of a place averaged over a period of time. Most people of a certain age will agree that the climate in their home towns has changed since they were kids. Friedman notes that our local TV meteorologists can play a role in educating the public on these fundamental matters but too many of them equate climate with politics and do not go there.
The world is getting warmer - that is not in dispute. Bill Gates summarizes the sources of global warming very succinctly in his blog and, I sense, believes that climate change is a "series of great opportunities disguised as insoluble problems". He notes that climate change is being caused by an increase in greenhouse gas emissions generated by:
Electricity (25%) - renewables are working but we need more breakthroughs.
Agriculture (24%) - cattle are a huge source of methane.
Manufacturing (21%) - all the plastic, steel and cement we use requires fossil fuels
Transportation (14%) - cars account for <50% of transportation-related emissions. Airplanes, trucks and cargo ships are big contributors that need to be addressed.
Buildings (6%) - Air-conditioning is a big culprit and the stock of buildings is growing (adding another NYC every month for 40 years).
Climate change follows the Butterfly Effect. Friedman provides some compelling examples of small changes resulting in significant events.
In the early 1950's the world population was about 2.6 billion. Today's population runs at around 6.7 billion and will increase to 9.2 billion by 2050.
Not surprisingly, most of this increase is originating in the less developed regions, straining their natural resources and forcing emigration to more developed countries, or leading to greater instability and violence at home.
American addiction to oil, in addition to its environmental harm, also enriches those petro-chemical states that are opposed to Western ideals. The Saudi's oil-generated wealth coupled with its embrace of a more puritan and extreme version of Islam has enabled it to fund and incubate terrorist groups. In short, we are funding our enemies. Friedman maps the correlation between oil prices and economic / political freedom to find a strong inverse relationship. Petro-states become far more democratic in their outlook when oil prices are low.
Those third world countries need access to electricity, and the connectivity it provides, to help lead them out of poverty but that energy needs to be clean. As with their adoption of cell phones, those 1.6 billion people need to leapfrog the western world and build out a clean energy infrastructure. This will enable them to generate more income which, in turn, will lead to smaller family sizes which will result in less pressure on the energy infrastructure.
According to Royal Dutch Shell, it typically takes 25 years for a new primary energy form to obtain a 1% market share. This needs to happen faster. The company estimates that renewable energy will comprise only 30% of global energy output by 2050. It currently represents 17% of the total.
I'm a proponent of thinking locally and acting globally, but while some feel that a green revolution is underway and "feel good" initiatives will solve the problem; in reality the growth in carbon emissions is outpacing the introduction of renewables. Recycling and driving a hybrid are all well and good but this is a trillion dollar problem.
The smart energy grid of the future that Friedman describes appears to my green (as in novice) perspective (as in Southern California) to be coming to fruition. The IoT is creating smart devices that can optimize energy efficiency. Reading Chapter 10 some eleven years after it was written, it was interesting to see how much of Friedman's futuristic Energy Internet Era has come to pass and how much can still be done. As Jeff Wacker of EDS put it, "the future is with us, it's just not widely distributed yet".
Most innovation industries invest around 8 - 10% of revenues into R&D whereas the energy industry reinvests barely 2%. This needs to change. Look at the changes wrought by deregulation in the telecommunications industry subsequent to the break-up of AT&T in the early 1980's. More competition and less regulation in the energy sector could see similar results.
The energy technology innovators need relative price certainty if they are to risk billions of dollars in new ventures. Consequently, fossil fuels will require a price floor to provide the investors with some level of certainty that their innovations won't be undercut by low oil prices. The best way to achieve this is by pricing the cost of CO2 into the market whether by a cap and trade mechanism or some other form of tax.
To the argument that such a tax will make cheap imports even more competitive, Friedman argues that an equivalent carbon tax on imports would level the playing field.
China is the big question mark - it comprises 20% of the world’s population and is its largest carbon emitter. It may not be fair that China has to play by a new set of rules (do as we say, not as we did) while the West benefited from blissful ignorance but there is opportunity for China to lead the way in developing the energy technology of the future and leapfrog the west.
America has a role to play - it is still the model for most developing countries, so it should become a green model to which other countries aspire. The US can become a model for the world but leadership is needed.
AGAINST THE GODS
By Peter Bernstein
The year 1202 was a seminal year in mathematics. That was the year that a twenty-seven year old man by the name of Fibonacci wrote a book titled "Book of the Abacus" that introduced the West to the numbering system developed by the Arabs and Hindus and made possible all manner of calculations. Up until that point Europeans had used a lettering system, or Roman numerals, for calculations but this had obvious limitations (with a touch of humor, Bernstein numbers the second chapter of the book from page XXIII to XXXVI before reverting to page 37 in Chapter 3). Today, Fibonacci is perhaps best known for developing the Fibonacci Sequence that has given rise to the "golden ratio", the ratio of approximately 1.61 that appears throughout nature. But he really set the western world on a path to use a universal measurement system that laid the groundwork for calculating risk.
So starts this fascinating and very readable book on the history of risk by the acclaimed financial historian, Peter Bernstein. I first read and enjoyed this book a number of years ago and recently came across it in my collection and decided to reread it. He has the ability to convey abstract principles in an entertaining and understandable manner. His writing style is also very engaging - who could resist chapter titles about the man who counted everything except calories (Ch 14) or the strange case of the anonymous stockbroker (Ch 15)!
He covers the history of risk measurement from the very beginning in the 1200’s and onto the present day. Consequently he discusses the work of many of the early mathematicians who were fascinated by various problems and helped develop the science that is so central to business and science today.
In the early years of the thirteenth century, it was the Italians who ruled the scientific world. Luca Paccioli may not have invented double-entry bookkeeping but his work in the 1400’s cemented this approach to business accounting. Girolamo Cardano was a mathematician and keen gambler in the sixteenth century who did much to introduce the use of statistics into the study of probability and understanding the frequency of past events to measure the probability of future outcomes.
In the 1600’s the French came to the forefront. Blaise Pascal invented the field of decision theory with Pascal's Wager. The answer to an imponderable question such as - Does God exist? lies in the consequences of the decision. If God does not exist, then it doesn't matter if you are a believer or not - there is no heavenly reward either way. But if God does exist and you are a non-believer you will go to hell whereas you'll go to heaven if you are a believer. Therefore the correct decision in this situation is to believe in God as there is upside and no downside.
Later on, the English academic world was preeminent. For example, statistical sampling began with the efforts of a London businessman named John Graunt who recognized that an understanding of the make-up of London's population could help him make better decisions. His work was central in understanding the impact of the plague on mortality rates. Some 30 years after Graunt’s work appeared, Edmund Halley (of the eponymous comet) built on it to develop life expectancy tables that became the foundation for the life insurance industry. Not long after, the P&C insurance industry was born in a coffee house in London (Lloyd’s of London, no less). As trade blossomed and international wars had to be financed, coffee houses emerged as the primary source of information from the mariners gathered to share what they had learned on their travels.
Still later, Francis Galton developed more sophisticated methodologies around regression to the mean to promote some dubious objectives in the new area of eugenics - effectively the best in society should have more offspring while others should have less. His findings moved the developing field of probability to a more fluid science.
Moving into the twentieth century, and particularly post-WWI , the study of probability progressed from games of chance and insurance questions to the economy. Central to this is the work of John Maynard Keynes, the famed economist, who wrestled with how to measure economic uncertainty as the state of the economy is always changing.
From examining the world of macro-economics, academics began to study the world of the stock market after WWII. Harry Markowitz was central in studying the trade off between risk and return and realized that a diversified portfolio was the best protection against variance of return (risk). His work was groundbreaking and is the foundation for much of the work in portfolio theory that carries on to the current day in work on derivatives and the like.
THE FIFTH RISK
By Michael Lewis
The Fifth Risk - The One We Do Not Know or Choose to Ignore
Michael Lewis came on to the literary scene with the publication of his first book about 30 years ago - Liars Poker. He had the ability, then as now, to simplify complex subjects and crystallize the social and moral issues surrounding his subject matter by coming to the subject from a different angle. The Fifth Risk explores some of these issues as they relate to the presidency of Donald Trump. However, unlike many of the other books circulating the best seller lists over the past couple of years, he does not approach the subject from the point of view of Trump's fitness, or lack thereof, for the highest office in the land. Rather, he examines some of the detailed work that certain government agencies, and the faceless men and women who perform their work with little fanfare, perform that help protect us. He then looks at the appointees (or lack of them) to head these agencies and their tendency to come to their public trust with a level of disdain only matched by their interest in a personal agenda - hardly the definition of a “public servant”.
Lewis takes a “just the facts, ma’am” approach to his work - there is no discernible agenda other that to help people understand what the government does and the danger of undoing this work. More than any of the personality driven profiles of the president, this book should be Exhibit No. 1 in the case against not doing your homework. Some of the more compelling themes raised in the book include:
Trump, either as a shrewd tactical move or, more likely, as a result of general disinterest in the details of governing, has, and will use ignorance as a defense against adverse events. He is governing for short term gain and the longer term cost will be paid by us all when he is safely ensconced back in Trump Tower. If you remain deliberately ignorant, there is no need to examine an issue such as climate change; and if a hurricane hits the fan you just pass the buck. Knowledge means you have to work harder to understand the implications of your actions (or inactions).
The Bush team worked diligently to provide the incoming Obama team with a smooth transition and likewise the Obama team did the same for the incoming Trump team. Only one problem - hardly any Trump transition team members turned up after their election victory to learn what they were about to inherit. Trump’s objective through the transition period and through his presidency seems to be to eliminate Obama's presidential achievements from the record book. That’s some payback for being teased at the White House Correspondents’ dinner!
Appointees to high level positions have inherent conflicts of interest or were just plain unqualified for their job. They seek to use public assets (including such things as data pertaining to weather patterns) for their own private purpose and stop the public accessing this information, Trump's response - “Go For It"
Working for the government does not mean you are a pen-pushing, do-nothing bureaucrat. There are lots of really smart people working hard to solve big problems and keep us safe. They do it not for the money but because they are driven to public service.
Trump’s policies are disproportionately affecting poorer rural communities - the very people who comprise his base. It is a wonderful magic trick to do harm to the very people who will likely vote for him again.
But what is the Fifth Risk? What are the major threats to American life that keeps civil servants up at night? There are several identifiable risks such as nuclear threats, global warming, renegade states, and infrastructure sabotage / infiltrations which are all nightmarish possibilities. The fifth risk is the unknown event. It’s a given that we don’t know what we don’t know. But if we turn a blind eye to the things we may not know that we ought to know or be able to figure out, then we are inviting potential disaster. Ignorance may be bliss but it will not save us.
SHOWING UP FOR LIFE
By Bill Gates Sr.
A Wonderful, Instructive and Easy-to-Read Collection of Essays on Life
This book is a concise but charming compilation of Mr. Gates’ thoughts on life - from marriage, work, parenting, civic responsibility and more. Its brevity in no way diminishes its value - it is a thoroughly enjoyable stroll through some important (and some not so important) life lessons he has learned over the years. The “other” Bill Gates wrote the forward to his father’s book and it is equally brief but very touching: “Dad, the next time somebody asks you if you”re the real Bill Gates, I hope you say, “Yes.” I hope you tell them that you’re all the things the other one strives to be"
Parenting does not come with an instruction book - all of us have to figure it out as we go along, relying on our own parent's methods and our gut instincts. Likewise, children are their own personalities and while they may be cut from the same gene pool they may not be cut from the same cloth. But, while we may be different, everybody is good at something and we should find that thing in ourselves and encourage others to find theirs. Both the author and his late wife, Mary, lived this credo with all three of their children who are different but accomplished in their own way.
We can all show up for life in our own way - say yes to things, step out of our comfort zone and maybe heed the advice of Mr. Gates.
By Walter Isaacson
A Readable and Informative Perspective on the History of Computer Technology
As the beaver said to the rabbit as they stood at the foot of the Hoover Dam: "No, I didn't build it myself, but it's based on an idea of mine". So it is with technology innovation as this excellent book demonstrates (and apologies for lifting this amusing quote from the book). Walter Isaacson is without doubt the foremost chronicler of the world's great inventors from Da Vinci to Einstein and on to Jobs. In this book he takes a higher level view of the development of the computer industry from the very first machines to the rapid development of technology during World War Two and on to today's connected world. There were some “aha” moments in the evolution of computers, but they are far outweighed by the incremental developments and spirit of collaboration among the engineers and scientists at the forefront of these innovations (to the chagrin of corporate patent attorneys).
The book highlights a number of issues that helped the industry become what it is today:
The importance of Bell Labs - and its failure to capitalize on many of its inventions (possibly as a result of caution borne of their concern about anti-trust matters).
The importance of women in the development of the computer industry. The future of computers was initially believed to be centered on hardware development - the domain the men dominated, while highly skilled women mathematicians were relegated to software development - little did they know!
The importance of the relationship between government, academia and private enterprise in creating the internet. The transition from batch processing to time sharing and distributed computing laid the groundwork for today's connected networks.
The importance of psychology and the arts in creating the interfaces between man and machine and the development of the internet should not be underestimated.
The importance of the debates between the "web socialists" (a social community tool for sharing ideas) and the "web capitalists" (a commercial publishing forum) in constructing the internet experience we have today. The opportunity for people to be able to express themselves in a public forum and receive feedback can be more productive than passively receiving what the television broadcasts (depending on the thoughts being expressed and the program being aired!).
We tend to think of the technology innovators being west coast nerds, but it is surprising how many of these people grew up in fairly isolated environments in the midwest. Isaacson points out that these young men (mostly - actually exclusively!) had to be self-sufficient and good electronic tinkerers and had the time and space to dream big dreams.
Computers have done more than politics to change society. In particular, the open design of the internet wrested power away from corporations and given it to the everyman. But where does it all lead? Isaacson contends that while computers have evolved from simple tabulating machines, to programmable devices and now to machines capable of learning, AI will always have limitations - it is the combination of man and machine (man-machine symbiosis), of art and science, that will define the future of computing.
By Ray Dalio
Living an Algorithmic Life
It is probably unrealistic to expect that a book such as this could reveal the secrets to health, wealth and happiness for all mankind. At the end of the day it can be summed up by being realistic about your goals and disciplined in working towards them. However, Dalio takes this to an extreme by taking this objective and empirical approach to many facets of his life - both professional and personal. On the positive side, this does tend to reinforce the notion that a consistent, somewhat formula-driven approach to confronting life’s problems will yield positive and measurable results. However, on the downside, I suspect that such an approach may result in an inability to “smell the roses” on life's journey.
The book is divided into 3 parts - his life story, his principles as they relate to his personal life and to his work life. I found the first part relaying his life story to be quite interesting, but the meat of the book relates to the principles he discusses that are meant to be a users guide to getting what you want out of life - whatever that may be. There is nothing wrong with his analysis but I believe that most people should pick and choose where they use the principles - recognizing reality and using a common sense approach to the issue of the day should get you through. You don’t need to read a book to understand this.
By David Sumpter
People who use Facebook or Google Should Read this Book
Modelling human behavior is hard - but it is increasingly important for the lay person to understand how and why algorithms impact our lives. This book is a very readable and comprehensive analysis of how data science is used to influence (or subliminally drive) our behavior - for better or worse. It describes the statistical techniques that are used and provides real life examples of how those techniques work. If you use Facebook or Google you should read this book - I guess that means everyone!
The sub-title of this book really tells the story - “From Facebook and Google to fake news and filter-bubbles - the algorithms that control our lives." Most people understand that today’s technology behemoths use data science techniques to better understand their users and customize their offerings but it generally stops there. This book attempts to explain to the layman more specifically how companies use mathematics and statistics to better understand us and make predictions as to our behavior.
The book is divided into 3 parts.
This section is mainly about Facebook and Google and how they use different data science techniques to better understand their users and deliver meaningful content. For example:
Facebook - the importance of understanding how social media companies collect information about our personalities and use this data to predict our future behavior. It starts by explaining principal component analysis - a technique used by Facebook to categorize our personalities, values and socio-economic status. While most people tend to think of themselves as multi-dimensional; psychologists have boiled down human traits to a mere 5 elements - openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. Facebook can then analyze our posts, likes and pictures to better understand us across these 5 dimensions and then pitch products to us that are more likely to appeal.
Cambridge Analytica - the importance of understanding probabilities and the inherent limitations of algorithmic predictions. This chapter is fascinating and sets the stage by pointing out that the algorithms underpinning data science are probabalistic - they calculate a number that is proportional to the probability of a specific fact being true about a person. He goes on to explain how regression models use data fitted to one group of people to infer the preferences of others. In the old days (1990's) these regression models could use inputs such as age, gender, class etc to determine the probability that a person would vote for a particular political party. However nowadays, modern data analytics companies have access to an almost limitless variety of data.
Northpointe - the importance of data bias and false positives/negatives as it relates to criminal recidivism
Spotify -- the importance of "data alchemy”, or the need for intuition and expertise by the human data modeler to more fully understand our needs.
Sumpter concludes this section with a discussion of Julia Dressel, a student who conducted an experiment that determined that, when all is said and done, human judgment is just as sound as algorithmic predictions, although computers can operate at scale and are faster and cheaper than people. While this may be true when looking at the big picture, I suspect that algorithmic predictions will outperform humans at the margin where a more granular analysis of variables is important.
This section moves the discussion forward by outlining how data science has become more sophisticated in attempting to better understand us as humans and thereby influence our decisions and choices, such as:
FiveThirtyEight and the booming election forecasting business. There is an inherent challenge in creating probabalistic models to forecast binary events - such as elections or sporting events, although multiple and/or braver predictions (>95% probability) are more meaningful. Further, such predictions must attempt to adjust for the inherent shortcomings in poll data - the primary input in election forecasting, unfortunately it is very difficult to incorporate the wisdom of the crowd into such models. Statistical models need to understand our sometimes subjective and erratic human behavior, otherwise these models typically do not perform much better than human judgment.
One way of achieving this understanding is to move beyond simply categorizing us to trying to understand and influence us. Amazon recognized this early on, and, using a form of collaborative filtering is able to make recommendations as to what we may like. Knowing that people similar to us “also liked” some other product provides the consumer with a level of confidence in a prospective purchase.
Social media has also become a prevalent way to influence our behavior but it does so by amplifying our pre-existing biases. People tend to click on links that take them to new sites containing similar thoughts and ideas - in effect an echo chamber forms where our beliefs and prejudices are reinforced. Likewise, filter bubbles use an algorithmic approach to steer us towards material it believes we will appreciate. That said, Sumpter notes that the media tends to exaggerate and sensationalize the influence these algorithms have on our behavior - our real-life interactions with friends and family are more important determinants of our behavior.
Sumpter notes that the biggest challenge for the current state of algorithms used by the Facebook's and Google’s of the world is that they do not properly understand the meaning of the information we are sharing with each other. Consequently, these very same companies are attempting to solve this problem by chasing the holy grail - artificial intelligence.
To achieve this, the algorithms must understand context and analogies and to do this they must be able to analyze text, such as the GloVe (Global Vector) algorithm discussed by Sumpter that maps words used together near each other to find meaning and is thereby able to auto-complete our text searches on Google.
Neural networks, which are designed to mimic the way our brains function, have long been used to recognize patterns. However, more recently developed convolutional neural networks can solve problems without being told which problem they are solving. Computers have been trained to use brute force to play and win games like chess and Jeopardy, but more recently, the folks at Google have been able to learn games from the ground up, through trial and error and understanding the objective function of the game
The human body contains 37 trillion cells and the brain 86 billion neurons - that represents a lot of catching up for the AI scientists.
Smart people disagree on the potential perils of AI - for every foreboding Elon Musk or Stephen Hawking there is a far more ambivalent Bill Gates. So where should the average Joe come down on this issue? Maybe they should do as Sumpter suggests and check out Mark Zuckerberg's AI robot (Jarvis) video to see what he can do. IMHO, it's not much more than the slightly smarter home that we have available to us today.
So, is AI’s role in our lives to be relegated to a smart home assistant and a champion game player or will it evolve to a form of general AI? Many smart minds are working on important problems but there is still more hype and hope than results. Sumpter takes a somewhat more skeptical view and I suspect he may be right. Computers and algorithms may be able to do more and more but at what point will the market rebel - I for one am all for AI but I wouldn’t be caught dead in a self-driving car (at least, not yet!) - actually, on reflection I suspect I would!
LEONARDO DA VINCI
By Walter Isaacson
A Scholarly but Captivating Portrait of a Genius
Firstly - a recommendation. Read the hardcover version of this book. The paper stock is very high quality and does justice to the reprints of da Vinci’s work. It is weighty but worth it.
Isaacson is clearly intrigued by inventors who transcend the boundary between art and science. His books on Einstein, Franklin and Jobs delved into what made these men tick. And so it is with another polymath, Leonardo da Vinci. This book is another masterful analysis of the life of a man who was clearly ahead of his time. More than an artist, he was an observer of the human condition - both physical and spiritual, and had the gift of translating his findings into his art and his engineering concepts.
It is interesting to note the common threads between these subjects. They all were considered odd balls and anything but brilliant in their youth. To coin an Apple slogan, they were not afraid to think different. Da Vinci was the illegitimate son of a notary, suffered from what would today be diagnosed as ADHD, was gay and a vegetarian. Fortunately, he was blessed to be born at a time (mid 15th century) and place (Florence, Milan) that gave sustenance to his myriad interests. In fact, the Italian Renaissance produced a number of artist-engineer-architects who straddled disciplines - for example, da Vinci was good friends with Luca Pacioli, the mathematician and key contributor to the field of accounting, among others.
I found it refreshing that Isaacson chose to interpose his own viewpoints throughout the book where there has been an academic dispute related to the man or his work or his perspective could add value to the narrative. This personal touch lends the book a more personal feeling than a more arms-length depiction of da Vinci’s life.
It is easy to view the arts and sciences as two totally separate fields that have little relationship to each other. An understanding of da Vinci’s life and work makes it clear how much each discipline owes to the other. Da Vinci was a pioneer in connecting the dots between art and science and this brings a new level of appreciation to his paintings. In fact, it seems he was a more enthusiastic civil engineer and anatomist than an artist - if he was a little better at publishing his findings, his genius would would be even more more universally recognized than as the painter of the Mona Lisa.
Reading this book was enlightening - I found I knew only a little of his wide ranging discoveries. We don’t seem to create people like da Vinci anymore - I’m not sure why? Maybe our collective knowledge is so much greater nowadays that it is not possible to have the same impact across so many disciplines. In any event, this book provides a comprehensive and compelling portrait of a man even more complex than his most famous subject.
MEASURE WHAT MATTERS
By John Doerr
Check out the website at www.whatmatters.com
It almost doesn't matter what you know, it's what you can do with what you know that's important. So said Andy Grove who preached, practiced and taught this "achievement orientation” to his Intel co-workers, one of whom was a young John Doerr. The idea that execution is more important than knowledge runs counter to the ethos of many IP-oriented companies but Intel's performance under Grove's leadership is proof positive that "getting stuff done" works. Being the smartest guy in the room means nothing if you are not actually delivering something.
This concept is the foundation stone of the book and the OKR methodology that Doerr prosyletizes. The book is easy to read and understand, but that does not make it any the less important. It obviously works - Doerr’s many examples speak to that - but just as importantly it works for companies both large and small - in fact, implementing it early on in a company’s life can help focus the entrepreneur's mind and energy around what’s really important and avoid the myriad distractions that can sap productivity.
The book addresses many examples of OKR’s and their HR cousin “CFR’s" - Conversation, Feedback and Recognition. Honing in on the right objectives is a qualitative exercise and is easier said than done, while the key results are effectively a quantitative measure of the objective. The objectives that are set can be as big, hairy and audacious as you want but, IMHO, objectives that cross divisional boundaries, break down silos and force cooperation between teams will best unite the company behind its mission.
It’s apt that the book was written by someone with the name “Doerr” - pronounced differently it says action and execution. I had the good fortune to hear him speak at a function some years ago - he is probably the most articulate and reasoned speaker I have heard. His writing style is equally concise and incisive. Many business books try to promote a fad and capitalize on the latest managerial flavor of the month. This book, although it’s only about 250 pages, is the real deal.
POWERHOUSE - THE UNTOLD STORY OF CAA
By James Andrew
Deftly Weaves a Narrative from Interviews with all the Power Players
This book is a long but intriguing read - it tells the story of the powerful talent agency through the words of the myriad of actors (using that word in the loosest sense) who had a role in its ride to the top of the Hollywood heap. The book is written as a series of comments / interviews with the agents, creative talent and other people who were engaged with CAA in some way - either as founders and partners, employees, actors, directors and producers, competitors, investors and the like. It is then woven into a fairly chronological history of the firm from its founding in 1975 through the Ovitz years until the mid 1990’s and then on to the years of the young Turks through 2010 and finally its more more corporate evolution as TPG has invested in the business.
I am not an entertainment industry insider but was interested in better understanding how Hollywood works and this book explains how (principally) Michael Ovitz and others left secure positions at William Morris and proceeded to transform the way Hollywood economics work. Ovitz is obviously a central figure and it was fascinating to better understand the Machiavellian ploys he masterminded to advance his (personal / professional?) cause. Partnerships are inherently different beasts to public companies and his talent in building a collaborative culture within this structure undoubtedly was a core component of the success of the firm both during his tenure and afterwards. However, his penchant for secrecy and failure to recognize his own shortcomings, which were assets in building CAA, were surely liabilities that eventually came to haunt him.
It was interesting to read different people’s take on the same event - perception clearly overrides reality when dealing with the never-ending array of people issues that is at the core of an agency business. The author does not insert himself into the narrative but rather lets the people speak for themselves and the reader can interpret it as they wish. The book is stronger for this approach.
At a higher level, I found the book to be a cautionary tale of any partnership and how to plan for and manage succession. Likewise, diversification can make for either a stronger or weaker business - it's all in the execution. The industry is clearly going through some seismic shifts as technology changes the game - it will be interesting to see how CAA and its competitors navigate these changes in the coming years.
FINDING MY VIRGINITY
By Richard Branson
There's a Good Story to be Told About Virgin - This isn't It
No question - Richard Branson is a good man; a caring husband, father and son; a considerate boss and an all round fun guy. However, he is not a great author. I picked up this book anticipating a perceptive and introspective look into how the Virgin family of companies has grown, how the brand has been leveraged off a stellar reputation for customer delight, what sort of connective tissue underpins its portfolio of businesses and how Branson, the entrepreneur, ticks. Instead, I came away with a superficial examination of these subjects that left me none the wiser and disappointed in the time I invested in reading this follow-up autobiography.
The Virgin brand is powerful and trusted, and has shown it is capable of being transferred to many different industries that are ripe for some shake-up and refocusing on what will make the customer happy. However, I doubt it is as simple as sitting around a kitchen table, deciding to screw it and do it and then having Branson perform some daring (irresponsible?) stunt to get the new venture up and running and into the public consciousness. This does not mean the book should be a dry dissertation on B-school theory, but I was hoping for a little more meat on the Virgin's bones.
THE STARTUP WAY
By Eric Ries
Not a Manifesto - But Worth Reading for the Nuggets that Work for Your Situation
This book seeks to systemetize various change management techniques that the author claims have been the sole (or principal) preserve of nimble (read smarter) technology startups. As a result, it comes across as a consultant's effort to formalize, package and productize a range of actions that many companies undertake already, albeit in a less structured manner. Given this, I found the book to contain useful nuggets of actionable information but it falls short of becoming a manifesto for wholesale change in traditional companies.
In my view, one reason that startups survive and thrive is due to fear - fear of failure, fear of letting down one's fellow employees, fear of disappointing existing loyal customers, and fear of being back out on the street. An innovator at GE may sense those same fears - but tell him his salary is to be cut in half and if his idea doesn't work he'll be terminated, then his appetite for risk might diminish and he'll realize that the innovation game is not as easy as it sounds.
I understand the author is not promoting this type of Darwinian approach for all entities, but rather is attempting to promote some of the techniques that work in startup land. However, I fear that over-architecting innovation may have the opposite effect to that intended. Granted, Fortune 100 behemoths are notoriously bureaucratic in implementing new ideas and/or products but, in my experience, internal skunkwork projects still take place and many good ideas (maybe not all) see the light of day.
All that said, there are some useful, homespun words of wisdom that any business person should keep in mind through the innovation process:
Pivoting can be good - a pivot is a change in strategy without a change in mission. Regularly evaluate the pivot or persevere decision.
Conduct frequent experiments and move quickly to get an MVP (minimal viable product) to potential customers
Speak to your customers before and during the process - what do they want?
The board/oversight dynamic is key but reporting does not have to be on a fixed schedule but rather when their expertise is required.
Small teams beat big teams.
Ask what's the worst that can happen if a particular action is taken.
Develop a culture of transparency without fear of recrimination.
Amazon uses a start backwards approach - write the product press release first. This helps keep the focus on what the customer wants.
Focus on leading indicators (conversion rates, repeat purchases, customer satisfaction) rather than trailing indicators (revenue, profit etc).
In summary, I think that, like many management books written by consultants, it is best utilized by cherry picking those elements that work best for your situation and environment.
By Phil Knight
The Story of a Regular Guy who Persevered - And Made it to the Top
What drives a winner? For some, it is undoubtedly the joy of success and beating the competition. This is probably true of many of Nike's celebrity endorsers who are blessed with great sporting talent. However, for the rest of us, it is the fear of failure that drives us to beat the odds, to rise from the ashes every day and battle whatever foe is in front of us. Phil Knight is like the rest of us.
This is not a biography that recounts a seamless rise to global dominance and fun times with Jordan, McEnroe, Tiger et al. Rather, it is the story of an introverted guy from Oregon who had a passion for the shoe business and battled all manner of problems and near death experiences to establish a global brand in a very competitive industry.
Knight started the company that was to become Nike in his parent's basement in 1972 and has seen it grow to $35 billion in annual revenue. How did he do it? Product, people and partners were key, but beyond these it seems that the culture of the company was foundational. It wasn't a team of jocks or industry veterans, but rather a mix of passionate misfits who were having fun and were good at solving problems (and not afraid of failing) that helped the company expand as an undercapitalized newcomer.
Knight also recognizes the part that luck played - the company came along as the fitness revolution was taking hold (but the harder they worked, the luckier they got). On the flip side, his background as an accountant made him naturally suspicious of the soft skills such as marketing - the company had to learn its way as a creative advertiser.
Business autobiographies can be rather dry affairs but Phil Knight's story is entertaining and instructional. Love what you do, let good people do their thing - and never give up.
HOW TO LIE WITH STATISTICS
By Darrell Huff
A Quaint Look at How Statistics are Misused
This book was written in 1954 and not much has changed in the world of statistics since then - although much has changed in the world of salary levels and language! Using average salary levels of around $5,000 per annum to make a point is a little disconcerting. Likewise, describing statistical shenanigans by stating that “equally gay fun is to be had with percentages” is likely to be misconstrued today. That said, only 24% of the book used time specific language which I found to be quaint and did not detract from the larger points the author makes.
Another 50 years or more before the book was first published, Disraeli famously noted there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics. It's all in the context. Huff's short and easy to read treatise attempts to put context into the world of statistics and how they can be used and manipulated to support a particular point of view. Readers will not look at advertising and its many product claims the same way again.
FOUNDERS AT WORK
BY Jessica Livingston
A Great Book for Budding Entrepreneurs
This book is an interesting compilation of interviews with technology entrepreneurs. The book was published in 2008, so the interviews are with founders from the 1980's and 90's. The book is laid out in a Q&A style covering 30 entrepreneurs ranging from Silicon Valley heroes such as Steve's Wozniak to lesser known but still important figures who helped develop products that may still be widely used today or are possibly on the technology dust heap after their moment in the sun.
Livingston asks simple but pertinent questions - how did you find customers when first starting out, what came first - the product or the company, what were some pitfalls in the fund raising process, how did you determine what features to include or leave out, and the like. Consequently, a reader comes away from the book with a fairly unvarnished take on the ups and downs of starting a company.
Did the book contain any common threads or pearls of wisdom that would benefit a novice entrepreneur starting out today? To be honest, not many come to mind. At a high level (spoiler alert!), working hard and persistence were universal themes. Interestingly, sometimes the product came before the business and for others, they figured that with a little breathing room a team could develop a good idea.
THE ATTENTION MERCHANTS
By Tim Wu
Interesting History of the Advertising Industry
Advertising, in all its forms, is so ingrained in our everyday lives that we tend to take it for granted. However, it is a fairly recent phenomenon. This book examines the history of how advertisers and others capture the attention of people - from the early days of colorful, entertaining posters displayed in Paris and snake oil salesmen in the US and on to wartime propaganda techniques and the highly sophisticated techniques used by marketers in today's connected world.
Wu argues that people may be viewed as data receptors - we receive huge amounts of data input through all our senses. However, we have the ability to tune out the inputs (noise) we do not want and absorb and act on those inputs that we find appealing. The attention merchants seek to grab our attention with messages that cut through the incessant noise.
I found the chapter on the use of nationalistic messaging during wartime to be particularly interesting. A hundred years ago the governments of the U.K. and the U.S. used jingoistic campaigns to entice young men to sign up to the military to fight a world war. These techniques were later refined by Adolph Hitler who understood the power of the media to effectively brainwash his countrymen - and a new world war was fought. In fact, the chapter on Hitler's thoughts on capturing the attention of Germany's citizens is eerily similar to what we are witnessing in today's political climate.
Wu also strikes a cautionary note. Marketers have adapted to new media as technology has evolved; be it newspapers, radio, television or the internet. Advertising can now, to some extent, be avoided by the tech savvy - ad blocking, commercial free television and radio such as Netflix and Spotify have validated the subscription model. For $10 a month, consumers can reclaim some part of their world. But will the attention merchants ultimately run into some backlash where consumers seek to reclaim some privacy? In other words, the how of advertising may become less important than the where and when. An existential (or regulatory) question perhaps - we'll have to wait and see.
MARKETING ANALYTICS - A PRACTiCAL GUIDE
By Mike Grigsby
A Reasonable Primer on Marketing Analytics
This book is a reasonable starter on the subject matter but it did not really hit the mark for me. The author obviously had good intentions - creating a fictional marketing analytics professional who is tasked with an array of marketing problems to better illustrate the themes addressed in the body of the book. He also tries to adopt an informal tone in an effort to make the technical orientation of the text more digestible and concludes each chapter with a "You'll be the Smartest Person in the Room if..... section, but this technique falls short (IMHO).
Granted, marketing analytics is a complex subject area and some knowledge of statistics, econometrics and decision analytics is the price of entry and he does a solid job of explaining the technical details. He starts by revisiting some basic statistics concepts and then moves on to discuss CLTV, lift models, segmentation, experimentation (A/B testing) and more. The chapter on marketing research is worthwhile but still seemed out of place.
Overall, this book is probably best suited to students seeking a good primer on marketing analytics. More demanding readers should look elsewhere.
NUMBERSENSE - How to Use Big Data to Your Advantage
By Kaiser Fung
A Practical View of How Statistics Affect our Lives
This book takes on its subject matter by describing the way statisticians think as they wrestle with real-world problems - be it making freeway traffic flow more freely, making credit more readily available to good borrowers, structuring the SAT tests so it is fairer for students, or ensuring that the food and medicines we take are safe. Looking at these examples makes one realize how much the use of statistics benefits the average person going about his everyday life, without ever realizing the science that underpins these fairly mundane activities.
Fung comes at these problems by describing the way business statisticians think. They worry less about averages than on deviation (how large and how frequent), they focus on correlation and causation, and on making better decisions rather than finding perfect answers.
This book is a refreshingly clear and readable overview of how statistics impacts our daily lives in a positive way. In the distant days of the 1980's and earlier so many decisions that affected us were based on gut feel and personal judgment. Given today's plethora of data and cheap computing power we now live in a world of lies, damned lies and sound business decisions!
STRESS TEST: REFLECTIONS ON FINANCIAL CRISES
By Tim Geithner
A Captivating Retelling of the GFC from the Man at the Helm
Timothy Geithner opens the book with an anecdote on how his poor communication skills resulted in a bungled press conference in the early days of the Obama administration which led to additional market instability. Geithner is unusually honest in his own self-assessment and in recognizing how important the soft skills such as communication were to his job. As a famous politician (well, small town mayor) once said - "a good man knows his limitations". Geithner is quite self aware, in terms of his predilection for policy substance over press release form as well as his suitability for regulatory work over investment banking riches. This self-awareness informs his telling of the Global Financial Crisis from an insider’s perspective.
It is refreshing, therefore, to read a book on a complex subject that is clear and easy to read and understand. At the end of the day, all financial crises are borne of the panic that ensues from borrowing short and lending long and not having a sufficient capital buffer to weather the storm. However, the fog of the daily battle makes it challenging to develop a cohesive and consistent response to the many “crises of the day”. This book sets out a philosophy that guided the regulators through the maze and should be a guidepost for those managing our way through the next financial crisis.
One of the key statistics mentioned is that the government spent about $2 trillion in rescuing the financial system but generated a positive return of $150 billion. The lesson of this financial crisis (as well as military crises as Colin Powell famously noted) is that a response of overwhelming force is the most effective way to win and the cheapest long term solution.
Also interesting (but not surprising) is his description of the political wrangling that ensued when the regulators were developing the post-crisis response. The Dodd-Frank Act and the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau were essentially political outcomes - a result of the art of the possible. Geithner also makes a point of praising Obama for not being swayed by side issues - giving fee rein to the bureaucrats to develop policy unencumbered by polls, perception and politics . I suspect that it will take a generation for Obama’s legacy to be clearly understood - but I agree with the author that his success in averting a great depression will be recognized as his great achievement.
CYBER WAR - THE NEXT THREAT TO SECURITY
By Richard Clarke
Ahead of it’s Time
Richard Clarke’s book on cyber war was perhaps written a few years too early. In fact, the book was written as an early warning about the emerging threat of cyber-terrorism to our infrastructure and inter-connected world.
He is, without doubt, a recognized expert in the field having worked as a counter-terrorism expert for many years - so his warnings should not be marginalized. In fact, he describes some of the early, low level DDOS (deliberate denial of service) attacks perpetrated by Russia and other rogue nations. Just as the advent of tanks and airplanes changed the waging of wars one hundred years ago, so too is the technology revolution impacting the way in which wars will be fought in the future.
One could put this down to the musings of a technocrat theorizing about what could happen; however recent events (Sony email hack, Democratic party email hack) have put a harsh spotlight on how anonymous nation states can wreak havoc on an enemy. The threat has emerged and it will grow. The next war will be fought in the data center!
The book attempts to walk a delicate path between being a readable text for the everyman, who needs to become more aware of the threats that cyber warfare can pose; and a technical treatise on its history and the policy prescriptions that must be addressed if we are to prevent some future tragedy. It’s a hard balance to find - I think the authors erred on the side of the everyman. Not necessarily a bad thing, but the reader should be mindful of the authors’ objectives. I suspect this will not be the last book to hit our shelves on this subject.
FULLY ALIVE - DISCOVERING WHAT MATTERS MOST
An Important Book
I picked up (actually clicked up) a copy of Tim Shriver’s book mainly because I am a fan and supporter of the Special Olympics movement and I thought this book would provide some interesting insights into the origins and growth of what I believe to be a very valuable program.
In fact, the book accomplishes so much more than this. As a non-American, I was vaguely aware that one of the Kennedy sisters (Eunice Kennedy Shriver) had started the Special Olympics as a result of the rich relationship she had with her sister (Rosemary) who was disabled and institutionalized. What started as a home grown camp for sporting activities grew into the global program that is the Special Olympics. It describes how a man found his calling in life through helping others - and reinforces the notion that he (and we) receive so much more than we give when we help our fellow man.
I was struck by how the family pitched in to make things happen at a very grass roots level (of course the Kennedy name did not hurt) and by the personal relationships that Tim formed with a number of athletes. It is difficult and unfair to judge the motivations of any stranger especially regarding actions that took place some generations ago - so while the Kennedy family was famously competitive their treatment of their daughter was what it was. That something good came of it is the legacy that should be honored and the Shriver family deserves every credit for their lasting impact on the world.
CHAOS MONKEYS - Obscene Fortune and Random Failure in Silicon Valley
By Antonio Martinez
Surprisingly Informative and a Good Read
I bought this book on a whim as it looked like an interesting take on the inner workings of the world of start ups as well as insights into the machinations at Facebook. Having worked for some biggish technology companies and now playing in the start up world I expected to get some fairly vanilla anecdotes about the ups and downs of life in the Valley and the personalities who make the headlines.
Initially, I was not sure how the story was going to play out as the author started out with some of the later FB meetings and the goings on in his private life. This book was not going to find its way into any college class on entrepreneurship! Happily, the story then moves into 2 distinct phases - life in startup hell and life in big company hell. Antonio Garcia Martinez goes on to tell it how it really is - no matter where the chips fall or who he may insult on the way through. And - he does this in an articulate and informative way, whether discussing personalities or the arcane inner workings of ad-serving technology.
Bottom line - this book is a very authentic description of the way the tech ecosystem works. Whether discussing option vesting, the randomness of successful product development, the lot of a product manager (the man in the middle), the venture capital roundabout, the modus operandi of corp dev. folks (that would be me) Martinez captures it accurately - f-bombs and all.
AUSTRALIA’S SECOND CHANCE
By George Megalogenis
Puts Australia’s Immigration History into Context
A good historian is able to put the day to day events and tactical decisions of a leader (or country) into a broader frame of reference, such that what happens in any one year can be viewed as contributing factor to a longer term pattern. History provides the context that tells us how we got where we are, otherwise it is simply a bunch of stories. Decision-makers are often reacting to the demands of the moment (be it economic, social, cultural or otherwise) and fail to see the broader sweep of their actions. This book provides this context and I learnt a number of things about our evolution from penal settlement to a vibrant, diverse and cohesive culture.
George Megalogenis does a first rate job of describing the smaller events in Australia’s history and explaining how they formed part of a larger pattern that both gave rise to the multi-cultural country we have today and also contributed to the economic fortunes and travails through our history - from the buoyant gold rush years to the stagnant era of the early 20th Century and on to the more open and resilient period of the early 21st Century. Underpinning all this is our approach to immigration. From convict transport beginnings in the 1780’s to a gold-rush fueled migrant bonanza in the 1850’s that led to the xenophobic reaction to Chinese and Pacific Islander immigrants that gave rise to the White Australia policy and the consequent economic stagnation, Megalogenis puts the events into a historical context that enables the reader to better understand how we became the country we are.
That Australia is a fairly cohesive migrant society is not simply a function of our “fair go” nature but is a logical extension of the harmonious relationships that developed between the early English and Irish settlers. As the world becomes a more dangerous place with escalating religious and tribal threats, Australia stands to be the global model of a peaceful, well assimilated society. However, as the author notes, we can only be our best and remain so if we remain an open and welcoming society.
While it is not central to the books objective, it did not discuss in any depth such things as decentralization and the ability of the major population centers to absorb growing numbers of people or, indeed, the limit of the country’s capacity to support a given population given finite water resources.
I enjoyed reading this book both in terms of the history and for some though provoking commentary on our prospects.
By John Brooks
An Interesting Mix of Business Stories from the 1950’s
I read this book after seeing that it was a favorite of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. It is a collection of a dozen business stories from the 1950's ranging from the still birth of the Edsel, the state of shareholder meetings to the evolution of Xerox's business and the role of central banks. While the narrative style of the author seems a little quaint by today's standards it is clear that what is old is new again.
Overall I found this book an enjoyable read - more so as I became accustomed to the prose style. The subjects he addressed are as relevant today as they were then.
ELON MUSK - A BIOGRAPHY
By Ashlee Vance
A Biography of Possibly the Most Important Man of the 21st Century
I came to this book rather late but have long had a fascination with Elon Musk. In the middle of 2017, Musk’s reputation has solidified - he has done pretty much everything he committed to and more. I think that Musk may ultimately be seen as a more important influence on our lives than Steve Jobs, to whom he is often compared. If I want to dream big I’d like to think about inter-planetary life and space travel, using our energy resources wisely etc than to figure out how I can improve on the cell phone (OK - may be a bit unfair).
This is a well researched and detailed history of Musk’s life. I must say, I still have some questions about his younger life in South Africa (why was his dad so mean and what did he actually do?) and his education in Canada. That said, Vance’s telling of his business life from Zip2 and Paypal and on to SpaceX and Tesla is compelling and highlights that Musk rolled the dice big time with those ventures and his fanaticism on the details and not settling for second best ultimately paid dividends.
I am penning this review in mid-2017. The Tesla Model 3 should be released soon and SpaceX is about to launch another Falcon rocket to the International Space Station. These 2 companies are now well beyond start-up stage - they are vibrant enterprises and their futures continue to look bright. It would amazing if Musk started just one of these companies - but to do both at the same time is remarkable. He may ultimately be seen as the 21st century’s most important entrepreneur. One hopes that one of his legacies (realized during his lifetime) will be a refocusing on the sciences among school aged kids - the reality of space travel and clean energy could be a motivational force for tomorrow’s leaders.
WE ARE DATA
Too Academic to be Useful to the Layman
This is a timely book on a subject that is relevant to pretty much everybody in today’s digital world. The fact that everything we do online is reduced to a set of data points that may not reflect our real selves and may change on a daily basis and be widely divergent according to each user’s specific objectives is important for people to understand. The fact that one user may categorize me as a young single female with a propensity for fashion while another user may see me as a middle aged married man with anti-government tendencies is irrelevant. The data provides the "truth" to enable the user (a marketer, a government entity etc.) to take an action relevant to its objectives.
It is therefore unfortunate that the author makes the book less accessible (or understandable) to many of the people who would benefit from a greater understanding of the subject. For example, he writes: “More comprehensively, an algorithmic gender’s corrupt univocality substitutes for the reflexive interplay implicit in gender’s social constructionism.” That sentence may be true - I don't know - but it is hardly a page-turner!
Of course, like sausage making, the data aggregation and analysis process is messy and ugly, but if the sausage tastes good and the algorithm results in a welcome product offering or mitigates a potential loss then what is the harm. People willingly hand over their personal information and while this information may be anonymized, aggregated and analyzed, most people do not give a second thought as to what happens afterwards. Unless, that is, there is a data breach at a credit bureau or other data aggregator or some other adverse event occurs. Perhaps worse, the data may be used to make potentially damaging predictions about behavior (predictive policing).
Perhaps the message of this book is that there needs to be a Dummies Guide to Data Usage in the Connected World (maybe it already exists). This book may serve academia but there needs to be a text for the rest of us.
Nothing New Here Except an Attempt to Create a New Buzzword
This book is a fairly serious examination of big data and its impact on our daily lives. Mohr contends that not only is data getting bigger (or more voluminous), but business thinking and decisions are increasingly being framed in a data-centric manner - hence the term "data-ism". This feels as if the author is trying a little too hard to create a new business buzzword, but I have no quibble with the overarching theme.
The book is readable but does not really break any new ground - given the rich subject matter. Finding the right balance between readable, relevant anecdotes and technical substance can be challenging especially if the book is aimed at non-technical readers. I feel that the author may have underestimated the ability of business decision-makers to understand (and be keen to learn) more technical elements of data science.
NUMBERS RULE YOUR WORLD
How Statisticians Think
This book takes on its subject matter by describing the way statisticians think as they wrestle with real world problems - be it making freeway traffic flow more freely, make credit more readily available to good borrowers, make the SAT tests fairer for students, or ensuring that the food and medicines we take are safe. Looking at these examples makes one realize how much the use of statistics benefits the average person going about his everyday life, without ever realizing the science that underpins these fairly mundane activities.
Fung comes at these problems by describing the way business statisticians think. They worry less about averages than on the deviation from the mean (how large and how frequent), they focus on correlation and causation, they focus on making better decisions rather than perfection.
This book is a refreshingly clear and readable overview of how statistics impacts our dailly lives in a positive way. In the distant days of of the 1980's and earlier so many decisions that affected us were based on gut feel and personal judgment. Given today's plethora of data and cheap computing power we now live in a world of lies, damned lies and sound business decisions!
The Right Man for the Times
I was particularly taken with an anecdote fairly early in this very readable book where, as the new CEO of Microsoft, Nadella invited his senior leadership team to describe how their personal and work lives intersected. After all, most executives spend an inordinate amount of time with their work colleagues, but rarely allow insights into any but the most superficial of their personal lives and motivations. It was obviously an emotional but informative exercise. Nadella’s own life story informs who he is as leader and the scene helps explain much of his philosophy of empathetic management.
Selecting Microsoft’s third CEO was never going to be an easy task - the company seemed to be losing its way as technology shifts were bypassing Redmond. Satya Nadella did not have the public profile of some of the better known candidates, but his management philosophy, born of both his background as an immigrant and his personal and business experience, appears to be the antidote to Microsoft’s issues in dealing with a new and ever-changing technology landscape.
I believe that the technology industry needed standards and uniformity in its early years when growth was driven by the corporate sector. Gates & Co provided the leadership that was required and were necessarily ruthless in doing so. But where does a company go when it is a dominant force, but the future is not clear? Does it try to preserve the status quo and milk its legacy product suite for cash, or risk cannibalizing it in search of new fields to conquer? An easy question to ask, but a difficult question to answer. As the technology industry evolves and computing moves away from the desktop, new skills and capabilities are required - the selection committee understood that the company did not need Gates v3.0 and opted for a technologist insider but with a different take on how to move the company forward.
As part of the effort to transform Microsoft's culture, Nadella discusses the technology initiatives that will help drive the future of both the company and of mankind. He talks about the potential for mixed reality, artificial intelligence and quantum computing to transform our lives. These are complex subjects but Nadella uses examples to better explain how these technologies could impact our lives.
As an ex-pat Aussie, I also enjoyed his references to cricket and the analogies between the sport and business. It may not resonate with American readers but the sport, particularly at test level, with its ebbs and flows, periods of attack and times of defense, its carefully planned strategies that may take some overs to yield a result is a good metaphor for business. As with most sports, as well as businesses, a champion team will beat a team of champions! Nadella is obviously a team player.
Microsoft may not be what it is was in the early years, but who among us is? The author clearly undertook the task of writing a book with the goal of describing his philosophies on management and how to promote cultural change in a culture that had been very successful. Fortunately, there is some case history on teaching elephants to dance (and I highly recommend Lou Gerstner's book on transforming IBM’s culture)! That he would write this book while still quite early in his tenure as CEO, underscores his belief that he has something valuable to say about management in the 21st century. I agree!
TROUBLEMAKERS - SILICON VALLEY'S COMING OF AGE
A Great Take on the Growth of Silicon Valley
Writing a book on a subject as large and multi-dimensional as the history of Silicon Valley is no easy task. A chronological narrative would be one approach, as would a focus on a few of the defining companies through the years. Such stories would likely be faithful to the evolution of the industry in the Bay Area but probably result in a dull and formulaic story. A better approach would be to find some representative stories and let those diverse tales find a thread that captures the essence of the time and the place of the defining industry of the U.S. (and the world) in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Leslie Berlin took this approach.
True to the title, this book is about Silicon Valley as opposed to the (personal) computer industry (Bill Gates gets only a single mention). In fact, Berlin sees the valley as a continuum of entrepreneurs and ideas with each generation passing their technological (and ethical) torch to the next. A spirit of community and mentorship pervades the community such that the success of one company is seen as a victory for all. But the Valley’s transition from a sleepy agricultural environment to a center of innovation was not painless. Many of the pioneers faced fear, indifference and antagonism.
So, who are the people that Berlin identified to represent the time and the place? The troublemakers he profiles are not really renegades in the traditional sense, but rather a collection of smart young people working in a place and time (San Francisco in the 1970's), who defied the status quo by doing new things in a more informal manner than their largely east coast based, buttoned down masters were used to, and without the baggage of legacy products and conventional wisdom weighing down their thinking.
Interestingly, many of the entities covered in this book no longer exist in their original form - even Apple had to go through a near death experience before re-emerging as an industry goliath. That is the nature of capitalism. This books explores the growth of five major new technologies that were born and grew in the valley - personal computing, biotech, venture capital, video gaming and semiconductors. Today’s technology rockstars - Google, Facebook et al - sit on the shoulders of their forebears.
Like many, I was reasonably familiar with Xerox PARC but mainly as destination for the likes of Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and others to pinch some groundbreaking ideas. Less well known is the role of Bob Taylor in fostering its vibrant R&D culture and how his prickly personality both helped drive its innovation and led to its eventual implosion. How different would the world be if Xerox had capitalized on its innovations?
Virtually everyone has heard of the Steve's - Jobs and Wozniak - but not everyone has heard of Mike Markkula. He came to Apple as an already wealthy fixture of the valley, having been part of the Fairchild team. As Apple's first chairman and "grown-up" hire he, more than Steve Jobs, set the tone for the company's marketing and manufacturing ethos that exists and separates the company today, but he deliberately and happily remained a fairly low key figure.
On the other hand, no-one has heard of Niels Reimers. However, he single-handedly built Stanford's technology licensing office that jump-started the commercialization of academic research. From fairly inauspicious beginnings, he licensed patents to, among other technologies, recombinant DNA, that fueled today's biotech industry. He also pioneered the use of stock options, rather than cash royalty streams, that allowed small companies to access academic research and significantly boosted university coffers. He did not get rich, but his efforts did as much as many to spread the gospel of technology innovation.
At ROLM the world is coming full circle. A leader in telephone systems, it sold out to IBM after AT&T broke up in the early 1980's and was sold again a short time later to Siemens. It made many of its early employees, such as Fawn Alvarez, quite wealthy even if they started out on the production line. At the time, there was debate as to whether computer systems or telephony systems would be at the heart of the office of the future. The argument is probably moot today, but I suspect that Amazon's Alexa and its ilk presage an era where voice will become the de facto data entry form.
Atari would have been a fun place to work in the early years. Al Alcorn fell into a career at the gaming company where creativity and fun worked hand in hand with opening up a new industry. Working first for an engineering and creative cheerleader, Nolan Bushnell, the video gaming industry took off and the company was acquired by Time Warner where it was initially the star performer. However, by the early 1980’s the music stopped as the competition caught up and surpassed the pioneering Atari.
On the flip side, Sandra Kurtzig struggled to grow a software business as the founder and CEO of ASK, an independent software vendor creating software for business computers. But grow it she did - as a woman in a male dominated industry! Starting small and hitting singles, she grew the business slowly and learnt the ropes on the job. In fact, the company went public but missed the boat as computing moved to the desktop and was eventually acquired by Computer Associates.
These individuals all enjoyed significant success during Silicon Valley’s coming of age. But it was not smooth sailing all the way - people and companies came and went, but the industry kept innovating and growing. One of the badges of honor in Silicon Valley that does not really exist anywhere else is that failure is seen as honorable and as a key to future success - just make sure you learn from it and don’t do it too often.
THE SIGNAL AND THE NOISE
By Nate Silver
How to Make Predictions from the Master Psephologist
Nate Silver has developed an enviable reputation for his analytically rigorous approach to the American political process predictions - his accuracy in the 2008 elections making him the go-to psephologist of this era. He has since written a well-received book on the science of predictions starting with his own beginnings betting on baseball and poker and then assessing the role of predictions across a number of different areas (weather, earthquakes, economics).
The book is a very easy to read overview on applied statistics. He explains how prevalent predictions are in everyday life and how we are not very good at making them. Why are we so poor at making such predictions? Sampling bias, misaligned goals and other factors are explored.
I found the best and most informative part of to be the explanation of Bayesian theory (i.e. the probability that a theory is true if some other event happened). His example of determining the likelihood that your spouse is cheating was amusing but very easy to understand.
This book is a good read for the novice and the practitioner alike.