Book Recommendations

Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst

Author: Robert M. Sapolsky

The author sets the stage for this book by calling B.S. on the way so many scientists discuss behavior. They often have a strong bias to explaining the world in terms of their field. To the neuroscientist, the origins of behavior are neurological. To the sociologist, they’re cultural. And so on…

The point being different scientific fields study precursors that contribute only in part to human behavior. The truth is always more complicated than we grasp as first. Our brains are oversimplification machines!

So Sapolsky starts with a behavior and looks backwards at its influencing factors. He starts with seconds before, to hours and days before, to years and millennia before. Everything from neurotransmitters to hormones to genomes comes into play.

In the process, the author shares a lot of scientific background information with the reader. So much so, that I think I’d have to read the book a few times to really absorb it all. And I might!

This book sheds a lot of light on behavior. It’s a detailed and measured approach to analyzing why humans do what we do. A must-read for anyone who’s seeking to better understand humans.

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Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets

Author: Nassim Nicholas Taleb

As with the first Taleb book I read, Skin in the Game, I had to work extra hard while reading this to divorce the author’s wisdom from his style.

That wisdom is, in one man’s opinion, worth the effort. If nothing else, he’s keeping it real and letting his personality shine. Taleb discusses risk like nobody else I’ve read. He harps on the same points over and over, and for good reason: it’s the simple points that we mortals keep screwing up in our assessments.

One of the big points that hopefully sticks with me is his discussion of survivorship bias. Here’s a great example: trading stocks/options/etc is a great way to make money because it seems that everyone who has that job makes a ton of money! This is true. But what about the people who once had that job but no longer have that job? Most likely their career change was due to a sudden loss of a ton of money – more than they ever thought they could lose, and maybe more than they had ever made. And most likely that happened all of a sudden, so they “blew up”. What percentage of traders actually have sustained good outcome? I don’t know, but Taleb makes it clear that it’s a much smaller group than we imagine at first glance – all thanks to survivorship bias. We measure only what we see, and fail to measure what we can no longer see. So when we extrapolate based on what we see, we end up with a flawed understanding of reality. Basic, and also profound.

I highly recommend this book to everyone who takes risks for a living (which is probably you).

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Jeeves and the King of Clubs: A Novel in Homage to P.G. Wodehouse

Author: Ben Schott

Jeeves and the King of Clubs: A Novel in Homage to P.G. Wodehouse by [Schott, Ben]

I hadn’t heard of P.G. Wodehouse and his famed characters Jeeves and Wooster until I read this book. It was recommended to me, and I figured it was time for a detour back to fiction, so I gave it a try. I’m so glad to have read it!

The book is wonderfully funny. Set in the leisure class of early 20th century England, the author (like Wodehouse before him, I suppose) follows the life of Bertie Wooster and his Gentleman’s Personal Gentleman Jeeves as they get into and out of a bunch of minor but hilarious hijinx. From the book’s description: “Unfolding in the background are school-chum capers, affairs of the heart, drawing-room escapades, antics with aunts, and sartorial set-tos.”

The writing itself is spectacular! The English language is on full display throughout the novel. I listened to the audiobook version, and the narrator did a perfectly British job reading.

If fun wordplay, long-winded entertaining asides, and upper-crust English shenanigans are your cup of tea, you’ll love this book.

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Power Moves: Lessons from Davos

This is an audio-only production full of interviews of powerful people who attended the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. The topic is power, and how it’s changing nowadays due to the networked age we live in. Some of the interviewees include:

  • Mary Barra (GM)
  • Stewart Butterfield (Slack)
  • Satya Nadella (Microsoft)
  • Sheryl Sandberg (Facebook)
  • Eric Schmidt (Google/Alphabet)
  • David Solomon (Goldman Sachs)
  • Ellen Stofan (NASA)

Overall this was a relatively interesting listen. Even better, it was short!

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Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man’s Fight for Justice

Author: Bill Browder

The story starts out innocently enough – a smart guy finds his footing in the investment world by stumbling upon Eastern European privatizations after the Soviet Union collapsed.

Then it gets a little more interesting as he must compete with the local Russian “investors” who covet the same assets and play by a different set of rules. These Russians are the oligarchs, and there are other great stories written about how they basically stole Russia in the 90s. (this one is good)

But then things get hairy. As Vladimir Putin brings the oligarchs to heel, his interests are suddenly aligned with theirs. Aligned against the impetuous Western foreigner who keeps trying to extract investment profits from Russia.

And so begins the real story of this book – the story of Russians at their scummiest. A conspiracy born of and shielded by government officials from local police all the way up to President Vladimir Putin. Stealing hundreds of millions of tax revenue from the government, torturing and eventually murdering the mid-level Russian tax lawyer who discovered the fraud, and working tirelessly to ignore all evidence and stand behind the cover-up. Yikes.

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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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