The Upstarts: How Uber, Airbnb, and the Killer Companies of the New Silicon Valley Are Changing the World

Author: Brad Stone

This story is brought to you from the same author as The Everything Store, an excellent book about Amazon. With his tech reporter credentials he’s able to get exclusive and deep access to the key players involved in the growth of storied tech companies.

This book’s subjects are Uber and Airbnb, the titans of the so-called sharing economy. I have been following both companies for a while from my perch as a “tech enthusiast”. I also claim fame as an early adopter of Uber in Chicago, having used it a couple times to show off back when it only offered black cars. 🙂

I am glad to report that there was a lot to each company’s founding story that I learned from this book. I now have a much clearer understanding of the players involved in the origin stories, including the founders, competitors, and investors. It was fascinating to learn, and I encourage my fellow technophiles and startup enthusiasts to read this book.

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AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley, and the New World Order

Author: Kai-Fu Lee

I read this book mostly on the basis of the authors pedigree. Kai-Fu Lee is a tech rock star. He’s an O.G. of AI research, a tech exec who built Google China, and founder of the VC firm Sinovation Ventures.

What I hoped to learn from this book was not about AI necessarily, but rather about the view on why China would be relevant to the AI economy in the coming years. Lee delivered on the promise by telling a story that tied together China’s strengths and the current state of AI development. Despite China’s shortcomings, the argument that they have what it takes to make meaningful advances with AI technology is a strong one.

The point centers around the fact that we’re not relying on fundamental breakthroughs in AI research for progress. Instead, the breakthroughs already exist and now we’re in the “application” phase where execution is needed. And China has the skills to pay the bills when it comes to applying this tech because of the massive amounts of engineering manpower and a data-rich environment driven by culture and scale. Watch out!

Lee spends a good part of the book painting a picture of what the world might look like after the AI job losses start occurring. His message is that we will be wise to reposition the manpower that’s been replaced by computers to do tasks that are innately human – social work, care giving, etc. I’m not sure I buy into this thinking as much as the message on China, but it’s a conversation that I think will pick up steam over the coming years.

Read this book if you’re curious to learn more about AI and the “race” among countries to implement it. Otherwise, maybe find a summary online.

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10% Happier

Author: Dan Harris

The subject of this book is meditation. It’s a personal story written by Dan Harris, a TV media personality who’s been a journalist, a morning show host, and an anchor.

Dan’s story is especially interesting because of his early professional experience as a religion reporter. He was the stereotypical skeptic and cynic. He spent much of his time on the road scouting out stories of people with (seemingly) bogus beliefs and shining bright media sunlight on them. So the fact that someone like this was sucked in to the world of meditation and mindfulness by characters like Deepak Chopra and Eckhart Tolle is interesting.

Since I read this after having become a believer in the power of mindfulness (based on research presented mostly in The Science of Mindfulness), it didn’t do much to influence my thinking on the topic. It was just a neat story. But if you’re still on the fence, Harris does a nice job of detailing his personal experience with mindfulness.

One part that I found novel and interesting was his journey to a 10-day silent meditation retreat. Hope you enjoy it!

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Blitzscaling

Authors: Reid Hoffman, Chris Yeh

Not every startup need burn ridiculous amounts of cash to get as big as possible as quickly as possible. But some should, and Reid Hoffman explains exactly how to identify them.

Reid is the founder of LinkedIn, a venture capital investor at Sequoia, and a former early employee at PayPal. He knows a thing or two about the topic of scaling.

The book argues that for startups that operate in winner-take-all or winner-take-most markets, the need to grow quickly to capture market share far outweighs the need to operate a business efficiently. The trade off is to optimize for speed to market and growth at the expense of financial and operational efficiency, because absent winning the market there’s no hope for the business.

This is not a book of hypothetical musings. It’s actionable advice based on real examples of companies that “blitzscaled” to win sustainable competitive advantages – most often based on network effects that create customer lock-in and competitor barriers to entry.

Read this book to understand the mentality of venture capital fueled businesses, the stakes they play for, and maybe most importantly the conditions required for this path to make sense. Most businesses should not take this path!

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The Coming Storm

Author: Michael Lewis

Let’s set the record straight: I’m no weather geek. I picked this up because of an admiration for the author’s research and writing on other topics. And I’m glad I did.

Lewis tackles the topic of weather forecasting from a number of angles including:

  • Storm predictions to trigger evacuations
  • Weather predictions to help farmers
  • The business of weather forecasting
  • The politics of weather forecasting

The political angle is interesting and possibly divisive – Lewis highlights the choices the Trump administration has made to put someone with deep financial conflicts of interest in charge of the department that owns and releases all of the public weather data.

Obviously the title of the book can be interpreted as a double entendre.

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City of Scoundrels: The 12 Days of Disaster That Gave Birth to Modern Chicago

Author: Gary Krist

If you’re not interested in Chicago history, skip this book.

For those of you still with me, there’s a lot to learn from this story.

The author sheds light on a short period of time in 1919 when a lot of things happened. I knew about none of them before reading.

Here’s some highlights:

  • A hydrogen blimp exploded over downtown, crashing into one of the largest banks in the city and killing and injuring a many people.
  • A little girl is reported missing, leading to a city-wide search and the arrest of a very suspicious suspect. Also the rest of the city’s parents start paying close attention to adults who hang around children.
  • And probably most important – a week of race riots turn the city into a war zone. The mayor delays calling in the state militia for way too long. The governor avoids sending them in directly for political reasons. It’s bad.

If you’ve made it this far you may want to pick this one up.

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The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War

Author: Ben Macintyre

This is not the author’s first time writing a thrilling true-life spy book – and once again he delivers a phenomenal story full of intrigue, insight, spycraft the all-important details. 

Set against the backdrop of the cold war, the story revolves around KGB officer Oleg Gordievsky. Born into a KGB family where his father and brother both loyally served the state, he joined the bureaucracy and began diligently working to build a career. Like the lyrics to Eminem song Guilty Conscience, “he has a sudden change of heart, and suddenly his conscience comes into play” when he witnesses the Soviet Union put down the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia. 

He had an ideological break with the Soviet Union, and left himself open for recruitment by the west. MI6 took the opportunity and over a long period of time cultivated him as a double-agent.

Gordievsky was eventually posted to the Londen rezidentura (KGB office within the consulate) where he delivered some of the most impactful and high-level intelligence of the Cold War.

If you like spy stories, this book is a must read. Also check out author Ben Macintyre’s other excellent work about a British officer who spied for the Soviets: A Spy Among Friends.

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Farsighted

Author: Steven Johnson

People have been making decisions of great importance for as long as there have been people. With the help of evolution, some of those decision-making tools have been genetically encoded into our human DNA as biases and heuristics.

What we’ve learned from the field of study that Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman founded – cognitive psychology – is that when the outcome of a decision is important, the process we employ to achieve the best outcome must be more thorough and rigorous. Our genetic algorithms for decision-making work well most of the time and have helped our species survive thus far, but are increasingly ill-suited to modern challenges we face. 

That’s where Farsighted comes into the picture. The author offers a cursory review of some of the ‘state of the art’ tools that people and teams can use to improve the quality of their decision-making when there’s a lot at stake. In essence, all of them add up to methods that slow down your thinking to ensure consideration of all the angles. He doesn’t tread a lot of new ground or share anything that a sophisticated reader and experienced “decider” hasn’t already heard. Despite that, the book is enjoyable because of the anecdotes the author employs. 

Read this book if you want a short refresher on decision-making tools and a few interesting stories of decisions good and bad from the past. If you’re expecting new information beyond fun facts or surface-level frameworks, I’d suggest looking elsewhere.

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How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence

Author: Michael Pollan

Author Michael Pollen weaves together a lot of science, stories and experience into an intriguing narrative about psychedelics. I read this shortly after finishing a science-based book about meditation. It seems both methods – mindfulness and psychedelic chemicals – are an effective way to quiet the ego that lives in the brain’s default mode network. Why would anyone want to do this? It tends to be the case that once people accomplish this they are better able to cope with the daily trials of life.

LSD, mushrooms and other psychedelics earned a bad reputation in the US after the counterculture movement of the 60s. It was interesting to learn that before that movement, there was much legitimate research into the benefits of these substances. Many studies showed effectiveness of these chemicals at treating depression, addiction (including alcoholism and cigarettes), and fear of death.

This books comes at a time when acceptance of the benefits of psychedelics is once again growing and the restrictions of their study are loosening. I’m excited to see the scientific community dig deeper and uncover more about how these substances can be used for our benefit, and what their underlying mechanics can teach us about how our minds work.

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The Science of Mindfulness: A Research-Based Path to Well-Being

Author: Ronald Siegel 

I’ve tried meditation a few times in my life, but not yet with the dedication that I apply to other areas. Partly, I’ve been skeptical of its effects. And partly, it’s hard to do! I decided to read this book because the author is a Professor and clinical psychologist at the Harvard Medical School. I figured if anyone could make a believer out of me, it’d be a well-credentialed academic and clinician.

Well, it worked – I’m now a believer that effective mindfulness can really help people improve outlook on life. It’s eye-opening to learn (from this book) about the many controlled studies that have demonstrated positive mental effects of this practice. It’s been demonstrated to effectively treat depression, help people overcome trauma, and generally come to terms with the stream of thoughts that constantly flow through human brains.

Despite all of this information, I must admit that I haven’t yet restarted my efforts at regular practice. Something unknown is holding me back. But next time I try, I think it’ll be easier to stay motivated knowing there’s a real basis for it demonstrated in scientific research.

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