November 11, 2019

📚 Books I read in 2019

2020 is approaching fast, so it’s time again to look back. After 2018 was already a good year for reading, this year I exceeded my goal of 30 books. Here you will find a short paragraph overview for each non-fiction book I have read (listed by date read). Connect and shoot me a note if you want to talk about a book or if you need a recommendation. If you only want to read one book from this list, go for Safi Bahcall: Loonshots - How to Nurture the Crazy Ideas That Win Wars, Cure Diseases, and Transform Industries.

December (most likely read by then)

Eric Schmidt, Jonathan Rosenberg, Alan Eagle: Trillion Dollar Coach - The Leadership Playbook of Silicon Valley’s Bill Campbell

This book shares the leadership lessons of Bill Campbell, a former executive at Kodak and Apple who later became the CEO of Intuit. But he’s more known for his role as a coach to the A-line of Silicon Valley, including Steve Jobs, Eric Schmidt, Sundar Pichai, Marissa Mayer, Dick Costolo, Dan Rosensweig, Donna Dubinsky, Sheryl Sandberg, Ben Horowitz, and many others. It’s not a great book but a light and warm read, full of entertaining anecdotes. My key take away: Care about everyone, ensure trust and safety and treat your team with respect. Your title makes you a manager, your people make you a leader. Love and compassion are the key to business. It is a gentle reminder for those who have once again let themselves be blinded by politics, prozesslust and dividends. Also: Treat one person unfairly and your entire corporate culture may be at stake.

Richard Ogle : Smart World - Breakthrough Creativity And the New Science of Ideas

Another highly readable book on the process of innovative breakthroughs, creativity and network theory. Ogle mixes an entertaining cocktail of famous case studies with reasoning. It’s a bit hard read from time to time. His point is, that those who can make connections between idea spaces (in the spirit of Ludwik Fleck’s thought styles) only loosely related by weak ties are the ones making the big breakthroughs. One has only to connect and combine ideas, idea spaces and processes. He argues that ideas exists not only in our heads but also in an idea space, that represents the zeitgeist and society’s opinion on specific topics. And if we let these idea spaces work for us, we can achieve great things.

Christopher Wylie: Mindf*ck - Cambridge Analytica and the Plot to Break America

It’s a mystery to me that the book didn’t get more attention. It’s a cautionary tale about the efforts of Cambridge Analytica, Steve Bannon, the Mercer’s and Russian intelligence units to influence the 2016 U.S. elections and the U. K. Brexit vote. It makes you think and it scares you at the same time. But the biggest question is: Why did they all get away with it? The threat is more alive than ever and we will likely see more rising autharian political control information management and warfare attempts in the coming years. We need to talk about platform regulation. Now.

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 listed here. 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.

Frans Johansson: The Medici Effect - What Elephants and Epidemics Can Teach Us about Innovation

A quick and enjoyable read. Johansson argues that innovation comes from diverse industries, cultures, and disciplines when they all intersect, bringing ideas from one field into another. He also recommends assembling diverse teams of people to collaborate on innovation. None of this is new for many, but Johannsson wraps it up beautifully with great stories and cases.

November

Arthur C. Clarke: How the World Was One

I have a weakness for communication infrastructures. So I was very surprised and very happy when I discovered that Arthur C. Clarke (the author of 2001) had written a book (more five short books) about the history of global communications. The first book is about the laying of the transatlantic cable in the 19th century. It’s a thrilling read about Victorian pioneers watching the flickering light of the early telegraph stations. The second book is about telephony and radio. Books three, four, and five are a bag of essays about satellite technology, fiber-optic cables and the future of communications technology. Only the first part justifies the purchase.

Robert Jungk: The Big Machine

Jungk is a master of words. In this book he describes the emergence and birth of the European Organization for Nuclear Research CERN, which claimed to contribute to world peace through the internationalization of nuclear research. It’s written much like Tracey Kidder’s book The Soul of a New Machine.” It romanticizes big science and big tech. A highly intriguing look at the time and a warm welcome to the black mirror tech zeitgeist of our days.

Louis V. Gerstner Jr: Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance? Inside IBMs Historic Turnaround

Lou Gerstner’s memoir about the historical turnaround of IBM is a terrific, unpretentious, witty and honest description of the IT industry in the 1990s. He shows that small things can make a big difference and that change tends to move from side-to-side and not from the top to the bottom or vice versa. True transformation is driven through horizontal connections among peers and the best way to create change is to empower it with the right organizational structures.

October

Susan Cain: Quiet - The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking

An eye opening book. Susan Cain argues, that today’s life is increasingly optimized for group interaction, which is mostly driven by extroverted personalities. We tend to believe that all creativity and all productivity comes from the group. But this is against the nature of at least one third of mankind. Introverts favor solitude. They love deep connections, dislike small talk and conflicts, don’t take risks for fun, enjoy long working sessions, tend to think before they speak, don’t enjoy multitasking or prefer lectures to seminars. It is one of those books that will resonate with you on the first pages or not. If not, at least it will help you to understand people like me a little better.

Marc Randolph: That Will Never Work - The Birth of Netflix and the Amazing Life of an Idea

A light and entertaining review of the first years at Netflix from Marc Randolph, Co-founder and first CEO of Netflix. It’s full of startup anecdotes and stories you’ve probably read elsewhere in a similar fashion. But it’s always good to remember that the biggest and most influential companies these days have started only with an idea plus a big portion of luck.

Greg Satell: Cascades - How to Create a Movement That Drives Transformational Change

One of those books I’d like to have loved. But the spark didn’t jump. It has all the ingredients I like (network theory, change driven by ecosystems and communities, innovation theory etc) but if you have read a few books on similar topics, this one is repetitive. The core message is: You need networks and values. Small groups that are loosely connected but united by a common purpose.“

September

Sean McFate: The New Rules of War - Victory in the Age of Durable Disorder

Well… It raises some good points about the state of the world, but ultimately the whole book is about that the West” has gotten really bad at war”, because conventional war is dead. The author thinks, that the East“ and more and more non-state actors“ (all hail to private armies hired by big techs) as well as brutal shadow tactics, stealthy wars and mercenaries will win on present and future battlefields. Oke. The whole book is more an opinion than a well-researched analysis. Keep that in mind, when reading it.

Daniel Coyle: The Culture Code - The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups

There are a ton of stories about business leaders, professional athletic coaches and more, who all succeeded or not succeeded to form outstanding teams. Instead of feeling overwhelmed, read this one. It covers the most basics parts on how to create a fruitful strong culture that lasts: First, a strong culture sets up an environment where a team can deal with uncomfortable truth-telling and be candid with each other. Second, when people make themselves vulnerable by sharing information about themselves, they build connections and trigger that it’s same for others to do the same. And third, a group with shared values and strong emotional bonds performs better than a group that only consists of bright people or a group that was build around a specific skill sets.

August

Peter Godfrey-Smith: Other Minds - The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness

First: For a smart animal, octopuses are very weird. The books starts with a fascinating summary on how life started being able to sense and how we got the first bits of nervous systems. It then drifts into how octopuses are different to anything else on this planet. The author then philosophises whether octopus have the same centralized brain” as we do, or if it’s more of a sum of its arms/parts. The most alien thing in our universe lives in our seas! Unfortunately, the book lacks structure and, in part, depth of content. That makes reading a little challenging. It reads more like a collection of essays, thoughts and anecdotes next to each other. Anyway, the core remains absolutely fascinating: If you want to find a different form of intelligence, don’t look further than the octopus.

Eric Weiner: The Geography of Genius - A Search for the World’s Most Creative Places from Ancient Athens to Silicon Valley

Weiner has written an entertaining book about how and why golden ages of genius creativity sprout up at different places and times around the world. His definition of creativity is the ability to come up with ideas that are new, surprising, and valuable. He thinks that genius is not genetic. It clusters in certain places and times, which all share specific characteristics (they’re open, there is a certain amount of friction and tension, these are places where cultures interact, the cities are dense and often feature a certain level of arrogance). His writing style is a bit unusual. He describes his expeditions to the different grounds and then also travels back in time“ from time to time… But that’s just probably me. Highly recommended, if you’re into ecosystems, innovation and history.

Chip and Dan Heath: Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die

This is one of those books that fits on a cheat sheet that will be on your table for years to come. The authors describe how ideas stick with people and which qualities an idea must have to be sticky. Of course, they wrapped it up in a clever acronym: Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, Emotional, Stories (SUCCES). You have to read it to get it. So, just do it. The book will make your ideas better.

Phil Knight: Shoe Dog

Didn’t know what to expect. But the biography got me. Unlike many memoirs, it’s not an ego gratifying display of Phil Knight’s awesomeness. Instead, it features a deep focus on the beginning years of Nike especially around the first decade and the equal partnership between Bill Bowerman and Knight. It’s a story about a small company that was (and is) in love with shoes. Knight covers all of it in detail. The ups and the many downs. Today, Knight is worth over $36 billion and the founder of one of the most iconic brands on the planet. But if you read the pages, you will meet no superhuman, but a pretty normal, loving and at times desperate but optimistic human being.

July

Safi Bahcall: Loonshots - How to Nurture the Crazy Ideas That Win Wars, Cure Diseases, and Transform Industries

One of my books of the year. It’s a blend of history, physics, innovation and business. And it’s brilliantly written. Bahcall shows how you can orchestrate and encourage innovation, creativity and loonshots“ — a neglected project, widely dismissed, its champion written off as unhinged — in groups and organizations. His message: Innovation is not about culture, it’s also about structure! You need parts of your organization where ideas can flourish and develop. You can only make progress when you adopt new ideas, which are almost always resisted by those with a strong vested interest in the status quo (who will state that you can not make money with your new innovation).

June

David Epstein: Range - Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World

Another top contender. We live in a world full of specialists. We even train our kids to become one. We say to them: Pick an area of focus and stick to it (see for example the 10000 hours theory, the grit theory or the Tiger Mom theory), it seemed obvious to many that we should specialize as much as possible and as early as possible. Success will follow. But our world gets more and more complex. That’s why we need new rules of understanding on how we can prepare ourselves for a messy and wicked world. That’s where generalists come into play. People who link disciplines, think different and embrace collaboration, because specialization can actually hamper our ability to excel. The book is well written, full of concepts and stories that invite you to browse more ideas and studies.

April

Ingrid Burrington: Networks of New York - An Illustrated Field Guide to Urban Internet Infrastructure

A short and practical read, if you’re living in New York City. I’am still waiting for a Burrington book on communication infrastructure and how former political long-term infrastructure installation decisions influence our internet-present and near future future cloud politics.

Tracy Kidder: The Soul of a New Machine

A book from a time which I have not experienced, but which I have been allowed to experience through the words of Tracy Kidder. Written in 1981, it chronicles the building of a 32-bit microcomputer at Data General. This was a time when the competitive environment for computer advancement was heating up to a furious pace. Today, it reads like ancient history, but in fact it was the dawning of an age. It’s also a story about engineers bonded by a shared mission. They endured not just for themselves, but for one another. You should read the blog posts by Bryan Cantrill and Jess Frazelle to get a better feeling for the fascination about the time, that I fully share.

March

Yuval Noah Harari: 21 Lessons for the 21st Century

Well, a typical Hariri with the typical pros and cons. He’s a guru. Be careful.

Niall Ferguson: The Square and the Tower - Networks and Power, from the Freemasons to Facebook

Tough read. Niall Ferguson argues that history is not only about hierarchies which house in high towers and rule the world. Throughout history, power has resided also in the networks in the town square below the towers. They helped revolutionary ideas to spread and helped to tumble down the towers. So far, so interesting. But here’s my problem with the book: It’s dense. Really dense. And Fergusons writing style isn’t… elegant. He also tries to frame the entire history of mankind as a constant struggle between the power of hierarchies and networks. It’s obviously too binary. However, the bottom line is smart and well researched. There are also lots of words on network theory in it. Which is a good thing.

Liam Young: Machine Landscapes - Architectures of the Post Anthropocene

A good compilation of essays on existing and new critical communication infrastructures. Although the world is becoming increasingly digital, physical representations are still needed, when it comes to power the digital world. This creates new sacred temples to which very few people in the world have access. An extreme imbalance is created. And there is nothing we can do about it.

L. David Marquet: Turn the Ship Around! A True Story of Turning Followers into Leaders

Leadership should mean giving control rather than taking control and creating leaders rather than forging followers.” That’s the quintessence of an entertaining and educational book on how people should lead. It’s one of the better leadership books I have read. According to Marquet, the key to success is giving your people control, by building competence and provide organizational clarity. It’s also not a this is the way things must be done” kind of book. His core belief is that we can all be leaders. And the best way to get to that is to have a leader who can help identify the shared goals and vision for the team, and then let them do their work, providing feedback on what is working best as a way to attain excellence (vs avoiding mistakes).

John Carreyrou: Bad Blood - Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup

What a breathtaking and insane story. Even Bill Gates said, that the book was book so compelling that he couldn’t turn away from it. Anyone who has anything to do with the Silicon Valley, in a professional or private context, should read this story. It describes the worst-case scenario of what happens when a CEO prioritizes personal legacy above all else. Let me close with the words of Bill Gates: Bad Blood tackles some serious ethical questions, but it is ultimately a thriller with a tragic ending. It’s a fun read full of bizarre details that will make you gasp out loud. The story almost feels too ridiculous to be real at points (no wonder Hollywood is already planning to turn it into a movie). I think it’s the perfect book to read by the fire this winter.“

February

Walter Isaacson: The Innovators - How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution

Much, much love for this book. The Innovators is obviously not a comprehensive history of all computer and internet-related technology. It’s more an enjoyable and informative book about several fascinating people — the highlights — who participated in the long story of installing the foundations for our internet-driven world. Isaacson also shows that the digital revolution is to a large extent a team game that spanned space and time. We all stand on the shoulder of giants.

Christian Davenport: The Space Barons - Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and the Quest to Colonize the Cosmos

Space Barons is a book about the new space race. In particular a book about Elon Musk and SpaceX as well as Jeff Bezos and Blue Origin, Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic, Paul Allen and Stratolaunch plus some earlier and more ancillary companies (lead by Burt Rutan or Mike Melvill, a part I enjoyed very much). It’s also a book full of familiar Silicon Valley tales, so yes, you will find hype narratives and libertarian messages (e.g. regulation will kill the industry and the opportunity that is space). But in sum it is a good summary of the status quo.

January

Steven Johnson: Where Good Ideas Come from: The Natural History of Innovation

By now a classic, I’d say. The printing press, the pencil, the flush toilet, the battery — these are all great ideas. But where do they come from? What kind of environment breeds them? What sparks the flash of brilliance? Johnson provides an easy to read answer. It’s all about the adjacent possible, liquid networks, slow hunches, serendipity, errors, exaptation and platforms. Each chapter describes a pattern by starting out with an anecdote of some inventor x in city y in year z. Then the pattern is defined / described and finally a bit elaborated upon with possibly more anecdotes. The book could be a bit shorter, but it gives you enough food for though. The two core ideas are: Innovations are best modeled as ideas having sex. They don’t pop into existence but instead each idea is formed by the process of mixing elements from previous ideas or slightly improving on an aspect of the idea. Second, innovations don’t happen in sudden eureka moments inside the mind of one person, but instead happen over time through slow hunches” that incubate inside an obsessed mind, while that mind is engaged in liquid networks of other minds. Networks.

Kai-Fu Lee: AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley, and the New World Order

An eye opening book for those unfamiliar with the wide ranging capabilities and imminent impact of AI and the Chinese tech sector. Lee makes a strong case that AI will have profound consequences for society and determine the relative power of nations, in terms of economic power. His prediction: China will eclipse the United States as a global superpower in the realm of international commerce. Read the book if you want to understand the Chinese ecosystem and how AI will change the systems surrounding us.

Walter Isaacson: Einstein - His Life and Universe

What can one write about this? Go and read it. It’s a brilliant book about a brilliant man. It touches the life of Einstein from a strictly biographical angle, the examination of his scientific works and the discussion of how Einstein impacted and viewed the scientific zeitgeist of the early 20th century.


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