Thursday, September 25, 2014

ZERO TO ONE by Peter Thiel

ZERO TO ONE by Peter Thiel and Blake Masters explores the seven questions which start-ups should be asking prior to launch, and how the future may be revolutionized by innovation. No one knows what the future may hold, and many people fear the future while believing that most of the secrets once sought by explorers have already been discovered. With this fallacy firmly assumed by most peers and MBA professors, the goal has become to add small increments of efficiency to already established models or products. But competition in this way is for long-term losers, says Thiel. Even talent shows like AGT or The Voice reward those who sing well-known songs just a bit better or with more feeling or with a personal twist. Yet try an original song that is unfamiliar, and your job may become harder, (with a second barrier to success added), but the rewards are exponentially greater. Going from zero to one means to create something new out of nothing, not merely to improve on what already exists in competing for market share. It requires courage and vision to think outside the box or bun, but Thiel argues that this is the kind of thinking the world needs most in order to survive the future, and so it is progressive thinking which business start-ups should be doing in making their first critical decisions, (including staffing.) Since only progress is sustainable. He gives examples of companies which chose right or wrong at the beginning, and how Hewlett Packard dropped the ball by losing focus. Intriguing and insightful, this audiobook should be required listening for those going into the Shark Tank and wondering if their product or service will fail or blossom. Narrated by Blake Masters, it is a motivating conversation with innovation that can shape your destiny by changing the very world where your customers live.

More on this subject, and review of PILLAR TO THE SKY here.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

STATION ELEVEN by Emily Mandel is not your typical dystopian, post-apocalyptic novel. There were no zombies, no Hunger Games, no alien invaders. Instead, an irresistible strain of swine flu arises in Georgia (Russia) and quickly sweeps across the world, landing in Toronto, and killing most of the world's population. The novel follows five people among those left, who were in isolated areas, including at an airport where the survivors of a last flight find themselves. The lights go out after news networks sign off for the last time, and leave these pockets of humanity who escaped the riots and roving bands of killers (one called The Prophet is like a pied piper for jaded misfits.) Minstrels and actors travel too, performing as a means to retain their sanity and earn their living in a world gone dark. The comic book one character writes forms the title to the book, as she tries to retain and connect with her childhood. The novel is lyrical and poetic, and is read with consistent engagement and charm by Kirsten Potter. AUDIOBOOK OF THE MONTH. What follows is my recent interview with Emily:

Audiobooks Today) You have a character with a tattoo about survival not being enough, who says they’d debated it all their lives. I thought this was interesting as I’ve had the ironic thought or idea, “he lives in a world without people” repeated when I see another person contemplating a crowd of strangers passing. Our culture seems to be about survival, the “us against the world” theme, and with this new millennium so many people have become obsessed by apocalyptic or end times stories, some of them unfortunately cliche and ridiculous, like the zombie books…which many of the authors probably didn’t mean to be allegorical. Were you influenced by Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” in any way?

Emily Mandel) I was influenced by The Road, both positively and negatively; positively in the sense that it gave me the idea that it was possible to write a literary novel set in a post-apocalyptic landscape, negatively in the sense that when I started writing Station Eleven, it was very important to me to not write The Road, so I consciously avoided much of the territory that McCarthy covered. I wasn't particularly interested in writing about the horror and mayhem that I imagine would follow in the immediate wake of a societal collapse. McCarthy and others have covered that very well. I was much more interested in writing about what comes after that—and I assume that something would come after that, because mayhem isn't particularly sustainable as a way of life for decades on end. I was more interested in writing about the role that art might play twenty years after a collapse, the kind of culture that might begin to emerge, etc.

AT) The traveling symphony and group of actors playing King Lear, along with the library, reminded me of Ray Bradbury’s dystopian Fahrenheit 451, where people learn and repeat books in order to save them for posterity. Is this partly why the groups travel in your novel? And why King Lear? Lear gave away his fortune to his daughters. You have a character paying a student loan debt, which is one of the humorous moments.

EM) I’m sorry to say that I haven't yet read Fahrenheit 451. The Traveling Symphony in my novel travels for strictly practical reasons: what they want to do is perform Shakespeare and music, and that's something that they wouldn't necessarily be able to do if they stayed in one place. If they were to settle, almost all of their time would be taken up by the tasks of survival—hunting, fishing, hauling water and firewood, etc. If they travel from town to town, there's a novelty factor every time they arrive in a new place, after an absence of a year or two; it means that their offerings are rare and precious to the residents of these places, and it means the residents are willing to trade food and goods in exchange for their performances.

I chose King Lear for a couple of reasons. The title role is one of those parts that actors look forward to playing all their lives. It was a good climax to the life of the somewhat vain fifty-something actor in the pre-collapse sections of the book, Arthur Leander. More importantly, Lear is on one level a play about losing absolutely everything. Lear loses his kingdom, his dignity, his family, his sanity, and ultimately his life. In the timeline of the book, the play is set just as a pandemic is about to hit; the people watching it in the theatre are about to lose absolutely everything, and most of them will not survive, but on the last normal evening of their lives they're together in a theatre, watching a play. It struck me as a good play for the moment.

AT) Indeed. About the usual choices made for novels on this theme, today people riot and steal when some outrage occurs or the lights go out, and presumably they’d do the same if the economy collapsed or a pandemic broke out. One survivalist bunker show I saw had a demonstration of a man going through an escape tunnel away from his bunker far enough that he could pop up and shoot his neighbors trying to break in. You chose an airport as refuge, since it was the source of the virus going everywhere, and is a familiar setting for tragedy or various forms of theater. Stephen King once chose an airport, and also a grocery store for a horror setting. In writing a literary novel on how people react, were there more sensational, cliche elements you discarded after first considering them?

EM) There were certainly more horrific elements that I considered. For several drafts, the airport in the book had concourses that could be separated from one another by sliding glass walls. In that version, a sick passenger staggers up a jetbridge in Concourse A and collapses by the ticket counter, which triggers an emergency quarantine protocol, Concourse A is sealed off, and everyone trapped in the concourse dies of flu. It was completely gratuitous. I felt I could achieve the same effect in a far more subtle way with the quarantined Air Gradia jet.

AT) Thanks for going against the usual. It worked. You know, after hearing your novel, I thought of Bill Gates for some reason, whose early life comprised a race for domination and money, and whose later life now is about helping others less fortunate. He seems more peaceful now, almost as though he’s had an epiphany about the meaning of his life. I believe readers will take away something like that after listening to your novel, too.


How We Learn by Benedict Carey

Steve Kramer reads HOW WE LEARN by Benedict Carey, which bears the subtitle “The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens.” One of the surprises is that the traditional method of cramming for tests is not effective in many cases. Science has shown that the brain has many complex ways to arrange perception, memory and retrieval, and sleep patterns figure into this. Oddly, we learn different things in different ways, and what you’re learning determines whether you should stay up late or go to bed early prior to being tested. Also, the usual method of finding a quiet place to study isn’t as effective as learning in the same setting as you’ll be tested. Instead of being a distraction, music or sounds can aid learning, especially if those same sounds are repeated during the exam. The science behind how learning is best achieved is examined here, Carey being a medical and science reporter for the New York Times. The audiobook will help students, musicians, and anyone else struggling with memorizing or just trying to get through college with less stress. And if you want to learn things unrelated to passing a test or getting a job, try WHAT IF? by Randall Munroe, which is subtitled "Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions." Best of all it's read by Wil Wheaton, formerly of Star Trek, and now with his own cable show on all things geekdom.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Donald Trump's latest Never Give Up Moment

Many factors are involved in this story, and one of them is that as the middle class declines there will be more poor people and fewer rich people (albeit richer), and so more buildings like this will go vacant because there are just no bodies to fill them. One interesting audiobook on this subject is THE E-MYTH ARCHITECT by Michael E. Gerber. To hear Trump's side of the game, listen to NEVER GIVE UP by Donald Trump, with Meredith McGiver, read by Steve Blane. It's about good deals and bad, fighting back from defeats and setbacks, and turning one's biggest challenges into success...with examples similar to this one. In our changing culture, with its shifting demographic base, it is also important to understand differing points of view in business, and for this listen to THE CULTURE MAP: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business, by Erin Meyer, read by Karen Saltus. And if you are a woman, then OFF THE SIDELINES by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand tells how she gets things done in Washington, while inspiring women to take risks. It's read by the author. And ZERO TO ONE by Peter Thiel is the ultimate start-up book for entrepreneurs, read by Blake Masters. It's for anyone who watches Shark Tank for sure!

Thursday, September 18, 2014

THE DOG by Joseph O'Neill

Few novels are “different,” meaning that they follow little traveled paths. One such novel is THE DOG by Joseph O’Neill. Of course it’s a literary novel. By that I mean the sentences are long and introspective, even analytical, as opposed to short and focused like a darts player trying to score points. This is a book asking you to think and observe, not merely to be driven around in a race car looking for a checkered flag. It’s an anti-Patterson novel, having no tight, ominous structure or 120 chapters containing one-word sentences. Riveting and page-turning? Hardly. But you are moved in odd ways and learn things you don’t already know, (or have already read 120 times.) Is this not a plus? It would be, if our culture made sense. What better way to tell a story set in Dubai, about a man who is “in the doghouse” with his girlfriend (and who goes to take a job in that ultimate wet dream of American culture) than to make it part angst over guilt, part revelatory confessional, and part observational travelogue? His internal examination, sometimes lost and plaintive, is also funny, ironic, didactic, and always aware of being on the outside of the hedonistic, simplistic decadence surrounding him (the Emeratis turning the American dream of a life of leisure and bling into a nightmare of the ultimate nirvana: ironic in its own way since more radical Islam believes that nirvana—life itself—begins only at death.) The outward story, in which a nameless protagonist cannot find the peace he seeks, (while examining his choices along the way), succeeds in ways a suspense or mystery novel with a neat Hollywood wrap-up cannot. So, while it’s not as exciting as pop formula novels, it’s also not as shallow, either. It's more like real life, in which we are all seeking things we hope will satisfy, even if we know they may only make us victims of our delusions in the end. I enjoyed The Dog for another reason, too. The setting is Dubai, which I also chose as setting for a novel that walks the line between suspense and literary. As read by actor Erik Davies, The Dog becomes an enlightened journey down a road less traveled, with a tour guide whose tone matches the material, while the material itself renders rewards to those patient and brave enough to listen to the truth told by a tortured everyman.

Friday, September 12, 2014

MEATONOMICS by David R. Simon

The cost of eating meat is more than substantial. If Americans gave up meat today, one sixth of the country would be returned to other agriculture or native use, an output of greenhouse gases greater than that produced by internal combustion engines would be curtailed, and untold billions would be saved in payouts that are given as subsidies by the government to keep meat cheap in visible price at (invisible) taxpayer expense. That Big Mac is more expensive than you think: it’s more like $11. So says David Robinson Simon in MEATONOMICS, detailing the $414 Billion which meat eating costs society each year. And then there’s the pollution which cow, pig, and chicken manure produces, and the depressing cruelty that the meat industry’s robber barons impose on animals to process them quicker (with hormones) in the Nazi war camp conditions of feed lots, tight stinking pens, and darkened grain barns that look like barracks for prisoners. (I recall seeing a report on a pig processor in North Carolina that wouldn’t let the press in to take photos, or even show them the kill floor without cameras. Aren’t pigs highly intelligent and sensitive creatures whose organs can often replace our own?) Simon relates the costs to the economy and the world due to meat consumption, as more land and water are used to produce grain for animal production than for human Americans…while grains are not meant to be eaten by cattle, and can make them sick. Used to be, he says, that thousands of small farmers raised cattle and other animals on open grass ranges, but in recent decades the trend has gone toward giant corporate farms who hustle cattle into fed lots ever earlier, while chickens never see the light of day. Narrated by the always engaging Christopher Lane, this audiobook is a must hear for anyone wanting to lift the curtain hiding butchers from investigative audit. The book ends with a solution sure to be fought by the massive meat lobby and Cargill: a tax on meat consumption to make the prices reflect what Americans are actually paying anyway. Fish farms are also a target. Not only are inferior fish escaping from farms (such as in Alaska) and breeding with wild species, but if something isn’t done soon, fish populations will collapse because fishermen are being paid to fish ever dwindling stocks…which they wouldn’t be doing if they weren’t being paid by subsidy checks taken directly from our wallets in taxes.