School’s out and summer is here. You could grab an airport bestseller -- you know the kind -- “hardnosed but psychologically damaged PI doggedly solves grisly murder” or “elite special forces unit foils terrorist plot in the nick of time.” Perhaps emotionally satisfying, or at least mind numbing, these are the cerebral equivalent of cotton candy and potato chips, empty intellectual calories with instant gratification but no lasting benefit. Or, you could have a hearty bowl of steaming oatmeal – some chewy books on serious topics that will give you strong bones and a healthier intellect.
Herewith are my summer reading recommendations, some old, some new. Bon appétit!
Coming of Age: Cognitive Dissonance and Rapprochement
These are two disparate coming of age tales, one in Los Angeles and another in the rural South. Both are thought provoking.
- All Over but the Shoutin', Rick Bragg, Pantheon, 1997
Former New York Times correspondent Rick Bragg writes of his childhood in rural Alabama, growing up on the wrong side of the tracks, of his alcoholic father, the steadfast love of his mother and southern culture and the transforming power of the written word. It’s a hardscrabble, but heartwarming tale. The writing is haunting and direct, “My ancestors never saw a mint julep, but they sipped five-day-old likker out of ceramic jugs and Bell jars until they could not remember their Christian names.” I know this land and its people. I lived there, where there were only the poor and the poorer.
- Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez, Richard Rodriguez, Bantam, 1981
A set of autobiographical reflections on being a youth caught between two worlds, the book opens with the poignant, “I remember to start with that day in Sacramento--a California now nearly thirty years past--when I first entered a classroom, able to understand some fifty stray English words.” More than relating a feel-good story of assimilation and the American dream, assuaging majority liberal guilt, Richard Rodriguez raises difficult issues about socioeconomic class, culture and expectations. It is a provocative read, whether one agrees or disagrees.
Science and Culture
Scientists are “real people” too, with all of the human struggles and foibles.
- A Feeling for the Organism: The Life and Work of Barbara McClintock, Evelyn Fox Keller, Times Books, 1984
McClintock struggled for success in a male-dominated research world, a struggle made doubly difficult by a controversial theory and a maverick approach. Her study of transposition (the movement of genetic material within the genome of a cell) contradicted traditional views of genetics, even though she painstakingly demonstrated its correctness via maize experiments. Only much later did she receive the Nobel Prize, when the importance of the work was belatedly recognized. This is a personal memoir of a research life that spanned both the biochemical and physics transformation of biology and the social revolution of the 20th century.
- Advice to a Young Scientist, Peter Medawar, Harper Collins, 1981
This is not a “how to” book, but rather a delightful combination of philosophical insights and practical observations on a scientist’s life. From “The old fashioned remedy for hubris was a smart blow on the head with an inflated pig’s bladder” to “Audiences are not really impressed when a lecturer rummages in his pocket for an envelope …” you will nod knowingly. Behind the levity, Sir Peter offers deep insights into the love of science and why passions matter. He writes from experience and with verve and British wit.
Globalization and Innovation
Globalization and rapid information transfer have profound implications for our future. Here are two perspectives on economics and U.S. futures.
- The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More, Chris Anderson, Hyperion, 2006
The long tail is an allusion to statistics, where a substantial fraction of a probability distribution’s mass is highly skewed toward low probability events. Building on a Wired article, Anderson highlights the changing nature of retail economics and consumer choice when inventory and distribution costs are negligible, even for rare, specialty products. A bricks and mortar bookstore or record shop maintains a modest inventory, dictated by the 80/20 rule (i.e., 20 percent of the product accounts for 80 percent of the sales) and the substantial costs of inventory. For online retailing, the inventory holding costs are small and even niche elements contribute substantially to overall sales.
- Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future, National Academies Press, 2007
Nicknamed the Augustine report, after the committee chair Norm Augustine (former Lockheed-Martin CEO), this study is the intellectual basis of both the White House and Congressional competitiveness initiatives. Arguing for greater research investment, improved education and private sector incentives, the spirit of this report is captured in Augustine’s recent Congressional testimony:
Americans, with only 5 percent of the world’s population but with nearly 30 percent of the world’s wealth, tend to believe that scientific and technological leadership and the high standard of living it underpins is somehow the natural state of affairs. But such good fortune is not a birthright. If we wish our children and grandchildren to enjoy the standard of living most Americans have come to expect, there is only one answer: We must get out and compete.
Thinking About Thinking
How are and will economic and technological forces reshape intellectual inquiry, economic success and, perhaps, the definition of human?
- Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, E. O. Wilson, Knopf, 1998
Literally a “jumping together,” consilience is the notion that disparate fields (arts, humanities, science and engineering) are special-case examinations of universal ideas and principles. Wilson’s take on consilience is a complementary perspective to C. P. Snow’s Two Cultures:
Disciplinary boundaries within the natural sciences are disappearing, to be replaced by shifting hybrid domains in which consilience is implicit. These domains reach across many levels of complexity, from chemical physics and physical chemistry to molecular genetics, chemical ecology, and ecological genetics…Given that human action comprises events of physical causation, why should the social sciences and humanities be impervious to consilience with the natural sciences? And how can they fail to benefit from that alliance?
- The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, Ray Kurzweil, Viking Adult, 2005
Drawing on the power of exponential change and an old science fiction premise, Kurzweil describes a world where humans and computers merge, allowing us to upload and maintain consciousness electronically. Or, as David Brin once described the future to some of us (admittedly after dinner and drinks at Caltech), “I’ve got good news and bad news. The bad news is we’re all going to die. The good news is our children may not.” If you are a technological zealot, Kurzweil is a seer and visionary. If you are a guarded skeptic, this book will confirm your worst fears about unbounded hubris. Read and decide for yourself.
- Blue Ocean Strategy: How to Create Uncontested Market Space and Make Competition Irrelevant, W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne, HBS Press, 2005
How does one unseat an entrenched leader, regardless of market? The standard path is “beating them at their own game” by doing what the market leader does, but doing it better, cheaper or faster. This is the red ocean strategy, competing where others compete. Kim and Mauborgne argue that most market disruptions occur when an innovator pursues a blue ocean strategy, creating a new game the innovator plays better than anyone else. It’s the Starbucks or Southwest Airlines approach. This is the business equivalent of The Innovator’s Dilemma, a better known HBS book by Clayton Christensen.
Computing: The Human Equation
The story of information revolution is really a very human one.
- Andy Grove: The Life and Times of an American, Richard Tedlow, Portfolio Hardcover, 2006
András István Gróf: the former Intel CEO’s story is the quintessential rags-to-riches immigrant tale, with a decidedly technological twist. From his Hungarian childhood and Holocaust survival through his early days at Fairchild Semiconductor and Intel to the dramatic story of Intel’s repeated reinvention, this semi-authorized biography showcases a leader’s power to shape a company and an industry. Leadership is much discussed and dissected; Grove embodied it during great technological change – the rise of the microprocessor, demise of the U.S. DRAM market and growth of the Wintel PC business.
- The Soul of a New Machine, Tracy Kidder, Little Brown, 1981
Did you ever wonder why geeks would work for three days without sleep for the sheer fun of it? Twenty five years ago, Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) brought the VAX, the first 32-bit minicomputer, to the market. DEC’s competitor, Data General, had no product and was scrambling to respond with the Eclipse. Read the story of a group of engineers who literally worked night and day to respond, including the RTP “shootout at HoJos,” software and hardware competition and the battling egos. Many of these engineers are now industry leaders and my old friends. A single quote captures the spirit of the book and the love of technology,
The following winter, describing [a nasty storm they endured], the captain remarked, “That fellow West is a good man in a storm.” The psychologist did not see West again, but remained curious about him. “He didn’t sleep for four nights! Four whole nights! And if that trip had been his idea of a vacation, where, the psychologist wanted to know, did he work?
A History Lesson
Power and hubris, it’s an old story, told repeatedly in blood.
- A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam, Neil Sheehan, Vintage, 1989
A long war, an elusive enemy, mounting human suffering and an unclear exit strategy: sound hauntingly familiar? Sheehan’s Pulitzer Prize winning book charts the corruption in South Vietnam, the local population’s alienation, and the home front political spin via John Paul Vann, an Army leader and (later) advisor. Vann argued that U.S. military power was not the path to success, only social and cultural change could lead to stability. Remember the words of Santayana.
So You Need Escapism
Often imitated but never equaled, Raymond Chandler had an eye for detail that is dazzling.
- The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler, Vintage, 1988 (originally published, 1939)
Alright, so you can’t help yourself, you simply must read a detective novel on the beach. Then, in honor of English teachers everywhere, at least read one with style, panache and class. Meet Phillip Marlow, a real PI. With unforgettable lines, “She was trouble. She was tall and rangy and strong-looking” and “I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it,” this book will not only keep you captivated, its style and phrasing will remind you that great writing is a rare and prized art.