Book Notes Digest #2
May 11, 2019
I missed my March and April updates due to travel/work related craziness (went to Spain, Korea, and Japan, and got a new job), so here’s a longer than normal list of what I’ve been reading.
I’m also trying out a new email newsletter service so let me know if there are any issues with reading/receiving.
1 - Work Rules by Lazlo Bock
“Work is far less meaningful and pleasant than it needs to be because well-intentioned leaders don’t believe, on a primal level, that people are good.” (pg. 337)
This ended up changing my thinking much more than I thought it would.
Think of “People management” at Google and what comes to mind? Free lunch, free shuttles, and a notoriously hard interview process? That’s all I had. But after reading Work Rules, I realized how complex it is to manage people at scale, and also how Google’s values are so unique that adopting their practices without the principles will almost certainly result in failure.
The Google approach is to treat employees as generally good and well-intentioned. This means giving a tremendous amount of freedom, preventing the creation of hierarchy and management authority, and relying on rank and file to identify and solve problems. This means that you end up with amazing products like Gmail. It also means that you have company-wide scandals around the naming of cafeteria pies (e.g. "Free Tibet goji berry chocolate crème pie.”)
2 - A Mind at Play by Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman
A good biography of one of the most influential thinkers of the 20th century. Claude Shannon, the creator of Information Theory (which laid the foundation for the digital age), was an intensely curious genius, whose interests spanned electronics, mathematics, gambling, juggling and chess.
His former boss at Bell Labs, Vannevar Bush, believed that, “specialization was the death of genius.” Shannon certainly lived by that, pursuing a range of interests throughout his life, especially since his initial work on Information Theory was published so early on in his career.
Perhaps the most noteworthy idea I took from the book, came from a talk Shannon gave on “Creative Thinking”. In it he introduced the concept of constructive dissatisfaction—“a slight irritation when things don’t look quite right”, but one that leads to solution-finding, instead of just complaining. In other words, “a genius is simply someone who is usefully irritated."
3 - The Autobiography of Malcolm X
The Autobiography of Malcolm X is the most powerful book I’ve read this year, about an amazing man with a truly extraordinary life. That an 8th grade dropout, who educated himself while in prison for armed robbery, could go on to debate and influence and speak to millions of people and countless national and world leaders, speaks to his intelligence, character, and persistence.
Alex Haley says it best in the Introduction:
“No man in our time aroused fear and hatred in the white man as did Malcolm, because in him the white man sensed an implacable foe who could not be had for any price—a man unreservedly committed to the cause of liberating the black man in American society rather than integrating the black man into that society.” (pg. xxvi)
“American autobiographical literature is filled with numerous accounts of remarkable men who pulled themselves to the summit by their bootstraps. Few are as poignant as Malcolm’s memoirs. As testimony to the power of redemption and the force of human personality, the autobiography of Malcolm X is a revelation.” (pg. xxx)
4 - The Curse of Bigness by Tim Wu
“The main goal of this short volume is to see how the classic antidote to bigness—the antitrust and other antimonopoly laws—might be recovered and updated to face the challenges of our times.”
I’m a huge fan of Tim Wu—The Master Switch and Attention Merchants are two of my favorite books—and The Curse of Bigness does not disappoint. It builds on ideas fleshed out in his earlier work and develops a case for the importance of modernizing antitrust for the modern age, and how to go about doing that.
While the prevailing thinking today is that the monopoly litmus test is the presence of elevated prices, corporations are able to negatively impact consumer welfare through a litany of others means, perhaps best summarized in this quote:
We like to speak of freedoms in the abstract, but for most people, a sense of autonomy is more influenced by private forces and economic structure than by government. For many if not most people, the conditions of work determine how much of life is lived—such basic matters as the length of hours worked, the threat of being fired, harassment or mistreatment by a boss, and for some jobs, questions as fundamental as personal safety or access to a bathroom. Beyond work, our daily lives are shaped profoundly by economic matters like rent, access to transportation or groceries, and health insurance, even more so than any abstract freedoms. That is why Brandeis saw real freedom as freedom from both public and private coercion.” (pg. 41)
Wu draws significantly from the writings of Brandeis to build a case that the the “right to life” from the Constitution is not merely the right to exist, but the right to **live**. Today corporations run amok given the relatively bizarre blindspot of contemporary libertarianism: a bizarre tolerance of “mistreatment or abuse committed by so-called private actors.” Given that much of the interpretation of antitrust laws is based on flawed and incorrectly applied frameworks (Bork, Chicago-school interpretations, etc.), we need to once again use the powers of government to limit the reach of today’s monopoly giants.
5 - Eames by Gloria Koenig
A nice overview of the Eames and their tremendous influence on design. It was neat to hear about their connection to LA—an office in Venice, off Abbott Kinney, using a factory for fiberglass-reinforced plastics based in Gardena—so much history around me, that I haven’t been aware of.
Another great takeaway was the influence of World War II technology on the production of furniture and home design: molded plywood, plastics, and other building processes that made products cheaper to make and more affordable for consumers. That helped to fulfill the primary strategy of the Eames office:
“Bring the most of the best to the greatest number of people for the least.”
6 - The Spanish Civil War: A Very Short Introduction
On a recent trip to Barcelona, a tour guide mentioned Franco and the Spanish Civil War. I realized that my Virginia education had neglected to fill in those gaps in my historical knowledge, and that I honestly had no idea what had happened to forge modern day Spain. Fortunately, I found this little book at a Picasso museum before I left.
While the book itself was a little inaccessible and overly academic, the content was eye-opening.
The events that led to the fall of the Spanish Republic have many lessons that are relevant in other struggles today; there were many self-inflicted wounds by the republican-socialist leaders.
Many foreigners fought in the Spanish Civil War (including George Orwell—his experiences are chronicled in Homage to Catalonia)
Germany and Italy were the main financiers of Franco, supplying troops (some 75,000 from Italy alone), supplies, and planes/ships.
Rebel troops even fought alongside the Nazi’s and had active diplomatic relations with Germany until VE Day
The bombing of Guernica (the subject of the famous Picasso painting), was truly horrific—Franco bombed his own people, not to hit a military target, but to sap civilian morale.
Until next month!