June 19, 2020

📚 Books Books Books (2020 part 1)

2020 is already halfway through, so it is time for some verdicts. Connect and shoot me a note if you want to talk about a book or if you need a recommendation. Always happy to connect and chat. If you only want to read one book from this list, go and buy Peter Wohlleben: The Hidden Life of Trees - What They Feel, How They Communicate, Discoveries from a Secret World.

Malcolm Gladwell: Outliers - The Story of Success

My first Gladwell. Well… I really like his iconic storytelling style. His prose is engaging and vibrant. You can read the book in one sitting. Unfortunately, his methodology does not meet your typical science-based book standards. He oversimplifies complex socio-technological phenomenons and his arguments are too often based on anecdotes. One example: Gladwell’s interpretation and praise for the 100,000 hours rule from Anders Ericsson. What does it take to become an expert or master performer in a given field? 10,000 hours of practice. Gladwell claims that greatness requires enormous preparation time. It’s catchy and easy to remember. But completely false. Ericsson himself says that the number 10,000 is totally arbitrary. It’s not really based on anything substantial. But Gladwell estimates“ that the Beatles put in 10,000 hours of practice playing in Hamburg, and that Bill Gates put in 10,000 hours of programming work before founding Microsoft. Hence the 10,000 hour rule was born. Hmmmm… Otherwise, I like his basic orientation: Success is not solely based on intelligence, ambition, hustle and hard work. It’s also important that time and place in which one is born plays an important part in people’s key successes. Also we can never be separated from our roots, our community, our culture and our education. So if we develop our abilities and attitudes in the field that we are genuinely passionate about, if we’re open for opportunities and if we’re prepared to grasp any opportunities passing by, we can play an active role in our own success.

★★★☆☆

Robert J. Shiller: Narrative Economics - How Stories Go Viral and Drive Major Economic Events

Narratives are popular these days. Everywhere you can read how important storytelling is for… basically anything in our VUCA world. And yes, the topic is incredibly stimulating and definitely too underexposed. We still do not understand virality well enough to protect ourselves from those who know how to use catchy stories to their advantage. Anyhow, Shiller is interested in how popular stories affect individual and collective economic behavior and how we can use the knowledge to vastly improve our ability to predict, prepare for, and lessen the damage of financial crises, recessions, depressions, and other major economic events. An exciting research thesis, which could have resulted in an exciting book. Unfortunately, his chosen examples are too US economy-centric and too boring. Moreover, his data pool (data from Google NGram and ProQuest) is too limited to derive a truth from it. Plus not a word about Memetics, or Network and Web Science literature. Don’t get me wrong. It’s worth reading. The concept of contagion of narratives“ will become a big one. No matter what science, industry or media you’re in. But the book feels more like the start of a road.

★★★☆☆

Steven Johnson: Emergence - The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software

Just like Gladwell, Johnson has developed his own iconic style, which I really appreciate (and hate at the same time). He is a great author, who knows how to prepare innovation concepts for the general public and how to mediate between an interested periphery and the ivory towers of science. In this book he examines the theory of emergence and explains how biological and political phenomena are connected and how ants, slime molds, cities and distributed software are related (bottom-up, decentralized, locally interconnected, self-organizing). It is quite intriguing that the book was written in 2001. Even if some examples are a bit dusty (especially those dealing with the internet), you can still enjoy it today.

★★★☆☆

Peter H. Diamandis: The Future Is Faster Than You Think - How Converging Technologies Are Transforming Business, Industries, and Our Lives

Why? You have to know the Shingys to have a say. On the one hand, Diamandis and his co-author record some exciting developments and summarize current visions of the future well. His basic thesis — that technological convergence is responsible for rapid technological disruption — is also valid. On the other hand, Diamandis only collects hype, enriches it with startup cases, which will of course make sure that the outlined visions come true and misses to include social, political, societal and cultural developments. A typical problem of futurists. Diamandis’ belief: All problems of the world can be solved through the use of technology. The convergence of AI, 3D printing, cultured meats, nanotechnology, virtual/augmented reality, biotechnology and blockchain, will dramatically alter our ways of living or working. Yes, but No. Take it with a large pinch of salt. And consider that this book will be successful and will shape the thinking of many people.

★★☆☆☆

Ziya Tong: The Reality Bubble - Blind Spots, Hidden Truths, and the Dangerous Illusions That Shape Our World

Ziya Tong has written a vibrant wake-up call. It’s full of insights, knowledge nuggets and thoughts that make you think. It’s also a fountain of smart pub quiz questions. I don’t think I have ever scribbled so many 💡 in a book as in this one. It’s a book about what we refuse to see — and the destructive consequences. Her hypothesis: To see the world clearly, we must know our blind spots. And these are based on 1) biological perceptual limits, 2) collective amnesia (we don’t know where our food comes from, under what circumstances it is produced, where our energy comes from or where our waste goes, and 3) intergenerational blind spots that are passed on or newly created from generation to generation. In her statements she offers slivers of hope, that if we collectively get our asses in gear, we can change.

★★★★☆

Dan and Chip Heath: The Power of Moments - Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact

Last year, I really enjoyed Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die“ from the Heath brothers, so I thought: Give them another try. In The Power of Moments“ they ask: If our lives are measured in moments — moments that endure in our memories — how can we create these defining moments and do they really matter? Their answer: By outlining the elements of a defining moment” (these moments are EPIC = Elevation: Create moments that rise above the everyday; Pride: Help people feel proud of accomplishing milestones; Insight: Help people understand an important truth; Connection: Forge transformational alliances among people) you get closer to manage these moments in education, business settings, and your private life. Overall the book is highly readable but it lacks some impact. This is because they are often on the fringes of basic wisdom. Recommended for people who like to understand psychology, want to motivate people better, or just want to create more memorable moments in their lives.

★★★☆☆

Kevin Ashton: How to Fly a Horse - The Secret History of Creation, Invention, and Discovery

Currently I have a weakness for everything related to innovation, creativity and originality. How to Fly a Horse“ is highly readable, debunks common beliefs about creativity and shows what really leads to inventions and discoveries: Genius is not sudden inspiration but hard work and perseverance. Ashton’s main message is to get in there and keep trying. Nobody knows anything. You have to go out, see what works, discard the failures and build on the successes. You won’t know if it’s a hit until after you bring it to market. Picasso produced 20,000 pieces of art (1800 paintings, 1200 sculptures, 2800 ceramics and 12000 drawings), Einstein wrote 248 papers, Dylan recorded 50 albums, Bach wrote a cantata every week, Thomas Edison filed 1093 patents, Shakespeare’s plays are a canon of approximately 39 dramatic works and 154 sonettes, Mozart composed more than 600 works and Beethoven 650, VCs fund hundreds of businesses (hell, even Richard Branson funded more than 250 companies). Those who have created the most are also the ones who have the most significant innovative impact. The probability of producing an influential or successful idea increases with the total number of ideas produced. More iterations means more variants, more perspectives and a greater chance of originality.

★★★★☆

David Kushner: The Players Ball - A Genius, a Con Man, and the Secret History of the Internet’s Rise

I must confess: I only listened to the book part by part and in passing with 25% brain capacity. So I can’t really say too much about it. At least it helped me to pass some time and to make vacuuming a little more pleasant. Kushner tells the 1994 battle between the founder of Match.com and the con man who swindled him out of the website Sex.com, resulting in an all-out war for control for what still powers the internet today: love and sex. It’s an odd tale of cat & mouse between two unlikely rivals in the early Wild Wild West days of the internet. In the end it was not nearly as interesting as the abstract promised.

★★★☆☆

David McCullough: The Wright Brothers

Wilbur and Orville Wright taught the world how to fly and I was hooked’ instantly listening to the audiobook. McCullough tells stories about the boys’ childhood, their strong relationship with their father and sister, their early attempts at gliders and flying machines, those famous first flights in 1903 at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, and finally of their international fame and travels. It’s a tale of how two men changed the world. After 1903 the aviation industry exploded. One breakthrough followed the next. A flourishing ecosystem developed, which continued to push itself to maximum performance. For thousands of years man could not fly, but then it took only 55 years for the first transatlantic passenger flight to cross the Atlantic. And it all started with Wilbur and Orville, who showed grit and iterated their way to success. They were not the first people who have the idea of building a flying machine, nor were they the first to begin to build one, but they were the first people to fly. Their inventive leap was not a great mental leap, but more hundred of little steps. It’s a trial and error story. Trying something over and over, changing one small variable at a time. This is how true innovation looks like.

★★★★☆

Peter Wohlleben: The Hidden Life of Trees - What They Feel, How They Communicate, Discoveries from a Secret World

One of those rare books that will change your perception of the world. Wohlleben manages a forest in Germany (he’s no academic) and has written a wonderful little book about trees. Yeah, you read that right. Trees. It’s a book about how trees communicate, what makes them unique in nature, and how man has impacted their development, their lifestyles and their evolution. Wohlleben explains that beneath every forest there is a complex underground network of roots, fungi and bacteria that connects trees and plants. Almost 60 percent of all trees in the world are in contact with their neighbours through such a symbiotic fungus-tree connection. They communicate through it, support each other by sharing nutrients with those who are sick or struggling and creating an ecosystem that mitigates the impact of extremes of heat and cold for the whole group. All this facilitates a vast and interconnected ecosystem that is more than the sum of its parts. Trees shape the world and offer lessons for how to live in it.Especially Digital Ecosystems can learn a lot from their natural predecessors. After reading the book you will see the world with different eyes and will not be able to walk past any tree without wondering with whom the tree has already communicated today.

★★★★★

Ben Horowitz: What You Do Is Who You Are - How to Create Your Business Culture

Another long awaited book that is loved everywhere. Actually I wanted to read it, but I listened to it through my scribd subscription. Which means that I could not follow every bit with maximum concentration. But let me say I have mixed feelings. The book’s core question is right down my alley: How do you create and sustain the company culture you want? To answer this question, Horowitz mixes behind-the-scene anecdotes from his professional life and lessons from history to derive some power point truths and to connect the leadership examples from the past to modern case-studie: E.g. your culture is what you tolerate, walk the talk, actions > values, keep what works, incorporate outside leadership, make ethics explicit or make decisions that demonstrate cultural priorities. So far so good. The bad news is that Horowitz is not a historian and it feels a lot like he has interpreted the stories, characters and their decisions to fit the points he’s trying to make. The book certainly lives from Horowitz’s aura. It has cool stories and sticky pseudo-truths“ that you can share during your next afterwork craftbeer session in Berlin Mitte. But if you trim the style“ out, the book lacks substance. Even if his deductions are stimulating here and there. But don’t take them at face value.

★★★☆☆

Duncan J. Watts: Six Degrees - The Science of a Connected Age

Duncan Watts is responsible for the mathematical advancement of the small world phenomenon, which is often associated with the phrase six degrees of separation“ — the idea that all people are six, or fewer, social connections away from each other. The book covers his work on small-world networks and network theory in general and builds upon his paper Collective dynamics of small-world’ networks, which is one of the most cited scientific papers ever. His work provides the link between many of the books I enjoyed over the last years. Whether it’s about culture, innovation, team organization, corporate innovation, power, platforms or ecosystems. All of them are based on the scientific observation, that small groups, loosely connected, but orchestrated or united by a common purpose are performing much better as traditional hierarchically driven efficiency models. In this model, ideas can spread quickly and mutate into new ideas, innovations and transformations. Networks beat hierarchies. A fact that is still underestimated.

★★★★☆

Nick Bilton: American Kingpin - The Epic Hunt for the Criminal Mastermind Behind the Silk Road

What a ride. Ross Ulbricht (aka Dread Pirate Roberts) built a big-money darknet online drug empire from his bedroom and almost got away with it. This book had me from beginning to end. A nonfiction written like fiction. Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. You could buy anything on the Silk Road. Drugs, weapons, body parts, and other contraband were offered for sale. Even hitmen. And Ulbricht was the mastermind behind it. Bilton assembled a riveting rise-and-fall story and shows the transformation of an unremarkable student into the head of a global criminal enterprise. It’s clear that there will be more Silk Roads and more darknet shallows ahead, and we are certainly stepping in the middle of it right now.

★★★★☆

Albert Kapr: Johann Gutenberg - The Man and His Invention

Johannes Gutenberg, man of the millennium. We all know him. We all love him. His invention unhinged the world. But I was surprised how little I knew about him as an entrepreneur. So I wrote a portrait about the entrepreneur (will be published soon). Also because Gutenberg’s entrepreneurial history is surprisingly modern. After his first venture failed, he returned to his home city Mainz and experimented relentlessly on his printing press. But a too high burn rate and too low cash flow meant that he had to cede his business to his investor. Including critical assets and all printed Bibles. His history can still teach us a lot today. And Albert Kapr has done a wonderful job in bringing the man, the inventor, the technician and the artist Johannes Gutenberg closer to us. Moreover, the book is one of the most beautiful typeset books — no wonder — that I had in my hands this year. Even if it’s been around for a few decades.

★★★★☆


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Jason Hickel We have so badly misunderstood Darwin. “Survival of the fittest” has nothing to do with strength or dominance. It means survival of the most