Book Recommendations

Scale: The Universal Laws of Growth, Innovation, Sustainability, and the Pace of Life in Organisms, Cities, Economies, and Companies

Author: Geoffrey West

From the Amazon description of this book: “[West] has found an underlying simplicity that unites the seemingly complex and diverse phenomena of living systems, including our bodies, our cities and our businesses.”

The topic intrigued me. Was there really a common thread that tied all of this stuff together? The author made and reinforced the point that scale is a useful predictor for many features of things (animals, cities, companies, etc.). “If you know the size of a mammal, you can use scaling laws to learn everything from how much food it eats per day, what its heart-rate is, how long it will take to mature, its lifespan, and so on.”

What I liked about this book:

  • It forced me to think more clearly about the underlying relationship between mass and surface area. As an object gets bigger without changing its shape, the mass increases as a cube³ while the surface area increases as a square². The result is that without some accommodation of shape it will eventually reach a point where it can’t support itself.
  • The author highlighted examples where we tend to apply linear thinking to non-linear environments. For example, human weightlifter strength has a 2/3 scale factor – strength increases by two orders of magnitude for every 3 orders of magnitude increase in body weight. He concludes that the strongest man in the world (in the 1956 Olympics) was the middle-weight who outperformed his predicted capacity rather than the heavy-weight who lifted the most weight and under-performed his predicted capacity. Debatable, but fun.
  • Another example I found interesting was scale as applied to the dosage of medicine. The author makes the point that many dosage instructions are determined on a linear scale with weight, while they should, in fact, be calculated differently. A 30lb child and a 150lb adult should not merit a 5x difference in dosage. The same concept holds true for scaling up recipes in the kitchen. If you scale linearly from home cooking to commercial kitchen, you’re gonna have a bad time.
  • The changing lengths of coastlines due to fractal dimensions was a new concept for me. The point here is that if you measure the coastline of a nation (in Kilometers, for instance), the number you come up with is going to vary based on the scale that you use to measure. An example from Wikipedia:
  • Power law scaling applies to many aspects of cities too. For example, the number of gas stations in a city scales sub-linearly with population at a factor of 0.85. So for every doubling in the population of a city, you can expect only an 85% increase in the number of gas stations. This is an example of the phenomenon that drives efficiency in cities. The flip side is that when applied to metrics like crime rates, cities tend to show a super-linear scale effect, meaning that crime increases faster than population growth. C’est la vie, I guess :).

What I didn’t like about this book:

  • There are a number of fair criticisms about the author’s conclusions and the strength with which he makes them. Suffice it to say that many of the points the author makes are subject to debate.
  • As an audiobook, its hard to grasp everything because of the many charts the author references. More importantly, because I didn’t see the charts in real-time as I was hearing the message, it was harder for me to call BS when things didn’t make sense.
  • The author is a very accomplished physicist and academic, and his writing style and language won’t let you forget it. Over and over again I found myself shaking my head at his use of big words when small words would do.
  • The application of scale as a ‘science of companies’ didn’t resonate with me. It felt like a vast oversimplification without any real utility.

The book is entertaining and its many anecdotes and analysis are worth a read if this sort of stuff interests you. The only thing that might be better is if someone compiled the most interesting of them into a list of short articles or blog posts.

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Mycroft and Sherlock

By: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Anna Waterhouse

The first thing to know about this book is that it’s written by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the 19-time NBA basketball all-star. He has demonstrated, at least to my satisfaction, his skill set has grown far beyond the court. This book was fun!

Mycroft and Sherlock is set as a prequel to the famous Arthur Conan Doyle detective stories. Sherlock and his older brother Mycroft get their first taste of investigating a crime. It’s not an obvious crime, either. It starts with Sherlock’s discovery of some small oddly-placed puncture marks. 

If you’re as much a fan of Mr. Holmes and his detective work as I, and you’ve already read the original works in their entirety, this book shall serve as an appropriate next step in your literary adventure. 

If, on the other hand, you have yet to read the original works, I definitely recommend starting there.

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Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World

By: David Epstein

I owe a big thank you to author David Epstein for writing this book specifically with me in mind. When he set out to write this, did he know how much I’d appreciate his effort to validate my current strategy of dabbling on the verge of dilettantism?

In any case, the moral of the story is that breakthrough successes (both people and ideas) tend to come at the intersections of specialized fields rather than from narrow specialization. Generalists > specialists and the 10,000 hour rule is relegated to the trash bin.

He provides case study examples from athletics, music, lab research, and more. If you appreciate a good story and loads of qualitative evidence, this book will deliver for you.

What’s missing is, of course, the quantitative evidence that would more readily prove his point. But as humans who love a good narrative, can we all just agree to ignore that?

Now, in the spirit of variety and aversion to specialization, I’ll make sure to choose a next book that’s as far away from this on the range spectrum as I can find.

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Author: Daniel Suarez

Daniel Suarez is my favorite modern sci-fi author. I try to stay current on the cutting edge of science and technology. Without fail, Suarez has always been a few steps ahead. Reading his books feels like he’s followed all the same developments as me and then managed to connect the dots into a coherent narrative of the future. Then he adds interesting plot to spice it up even more.

Delta-V takes place mostly in space. It’s a future where space has become the next frontier of entrepreneurship. Considering what folks like Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson, and Paul Allen are all spending their piles of money on, this is a believable premise. In fact, some of the characters in this book seemed to mirror these real-life space entrepreneurs. That part felt a little kitschy for my tastes, but didn’t end up detracting from the book. 

If you’re into sci-fi, this is a book I wholeheartedly recommend picking up.

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Am I Being Too Subtle

Author: Sam Zell

Sam Zell sold a $39 Billion portfolio of real estate at the height of the real estate bubble. He’s a character. The autobiography of Sam Zell, narrated by Sam Zell, was so much fun to listen to. 

The entrepreneurial story here is an inspirational one. It starts, as many entrepreneurial stories do, with the story of Zell’s father escaping Europe as the Nazis took over. Zell grows up in an immigrant household and ends up going into business.

The book chronicles his life and work, with a strong emphasis on his work and his views on business. He’s an impressive character, and one who has worked alongside many of the same people for a very long time. I loved learning from his story – from his motorcycle trips in foreign countries to his buyout of the Tribune company that ended in bankruptcy.

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The Teachings of Don Juan

Author: Carlos Castaneda

In the 60s, UCLA anthropology student Carlos Castaneda met a Yaqui Indian Sorcerer named Don Juan. Faculty encouraged him to do field research, and he decided that there was much to be learned from Don Juan. Castaneda became Don Juan’s apprentice, setting out to learn the ways of the Yaqui sorcerers.

Throughout the 5-ish years of the apprenticeship, Castaneda was indoctrinated into a religion with a fully formed belief system that was built around hallucinogenic plants including peyote, Jimson weed and Psilocybe mexicana (magic mushrooms). By his own admission, at some point in the process he lost sight of his academic field research goals and became absorbed into the religion (my word, not his). He eventually cut off his apprenticeship rather than pursue what he believed was a permanent break with reality.

The book is divided into two sections. In the first section, the author recounts his first-hand experience absorbing the teachings of Don Juan. This includes his personal encounters with peyote (and the magic creature unleashed by the cactus called mescalito) and the other plants, as well as how he learned the other related elements of the shamanistic religion. The second section is Castaneda’s attempt to fit together all he learned into a coherent description of the beliefs of the Yacqui sorcerers. It reads much more like an anthropological study.

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The Secrets of Sand Hill Road

Author: Scott Kupor

Along with Venture Deals by Brad Feld and Jason Mendelson, this book is a standout resource for learning about the venture capital financing process. I had a lot of background before I picked this up, given my long-standing interest in the space and personal involvement in a handful of financings. This book helped fill in many gaps in my knowledge.

Specifically, I found it a standout resource for understanding the venture fund’s fundraising process and their typical relationships with institutional limited partners (insurance companies, pension funds, etc. who invest into VC funds). I hadn’t had much exposure to that before. 

The book also sheds light on the nuances of VC investor incentives – from timing within a fund’s lifespan to the dynamics within a partnership. Kupor also offers legal case studies of board fiduciary responsibilities to common shareholders, which I found interesting. 

For startup founders, he offers a really good long-view analysis of the many challenges that you might encounter during the course of building the business. This manifests into thinking about who you take capital from, how you dole out equity, board seats, and other strategic issues you’re likely to work through. 

I would treat this like a textbook and circle back to reference bits and pieces as they become relevant to your journey.

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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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