Saturday, January 22, 2011

A Peek at the Unrepentant Capitalist's Bookshelf

Recommended Reading from the Unrepentant Capitalist's Bookshelf 

Where Good Ideas Come From by Steven Johnson - As I've said in prior postings, a significant factor in America's success as an economy rests in our ability to innovate and come up with the 'next thing'.  As a country, we've had a pretty good track record when it comes to inventing the next thing, creating industries around those inventions, wringing out good early to mid life cycle profits, and eventually ceding whatever it is to a lower wage country and moving on to the next thing.  Johnson's book reviews the history of innovation and identifies the 7 key factors that foster innovation - the Adjacent Possible, Liquid Networks, The Slow Hunch, Serendipity, Error, Exaptation, and Platforms. Johnson also challenges our conventional views of patents and protection of intellectual property and questions if these mechanisms actually encourage innovation to its full potential.  A 302 page book in 5 words: chance favors the connected mind.  All in all, a very interesting read.

The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley - Another topic I've discussed more than once is people's strange attraction to bad news.  For whatever reason, people enjoy ('enjoy' seems odd here) bad news about the economy, killer meteorites, tsunamis, etc.  Ridley presents very thought provoking rebuttals to such popular 'doomsday' themes as overpopulation, global food shortages, and climate change.  He also presents a fascinating discussion of how society's ability to create technology seems to take a big leap when those societies reach a critical mass in terms of their population.  I don't know if they collaborated, but Johnson (from the prior book) presents very similar arguments when he talks about cities as powerhouses of innovation.  It's interesting to note that Adam Smith talked about the power of cities to generate ideas in the 1770's when he wrote Wealth of Nations.  Newsflash...Adam Smith was a pretty smart dude.

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell - Gladwell calls his book the story of success.  He studies successful people and produces compelling evidence to suggest that success isn't only about intelligence and hard work, sometimes societal forces also shape the outcome.  Why are the best Canadian hockey players often born in January and February?  Gladwell also presents a fascinating discussion of how people in different cultures deal with one another (measured by something called a Power Distance Index) and the life or death implications these differences can lead to.  Bottom line, it's better to have a pushy pilot from America in the cockpit vs. a deferent pilot from South Korea if you have a serious problem on a flight.

Innovator's Dilemma by Clayton Christensen - This has been one of the more influential business books of the last 10 years.  The book discusses how disruptive technologies (new products, services, business methods, or technology) from upstart companies can appear in the market place and, due to product's initial inferiorities and/or the product's upstart creators, are largely ignored by the market's established companies.  In those instances when the upstart is really 'on to something' (i.e. they've hit upon a big enough set of customer unstated or future needs), the new offering improves to the point where it unseats the incumbent and becomes the new standard. Christensen's book is often thought of as a technology book, but he includes several examples outside of the techie world, and his discussion of how WalMart, for example, changed the rules in retailing is excellent.

Monster of the Midway by Jim Dent - The last book hits the Unrepentant Capitalist's other passion, football.  Jim Dent tells the story of the NFL's first bad assBronko Nagurski.  Nagurski didn't have a lot of tattoos or illegitimate children, and he wasn't in to cheap shots, but he was one of the most feared players of his era.  The book specifically talks about the comeback Nagurski made in the 1943 season as many NFL players were called to military service during World War II.  The ’43 season was an astounding success for Bronko as he returned to the NFL after six seasons away from the game and reassumed his role as a dominant player while leading the Bears to the league championship.  A few years ago, I had an opportunity to meet and spend several hours talking with a gentleman who played on that 1943 Bears team.  This guy had seen all the great players of the day (Sammy Baugh, Don Hutson, Mel Hein) and marveled over Bronko saying he was easily the best player he had ever seen.  As a running back, he could not be brought down by one tackler, and as a defensive lineman, he was virtually unblockable.  Bronko played the 1943 season for $5000.  Not bad by 1943 standards, but even adjusting for inflation, it doesn't come close to the salary of a lowly deep snapper in today's game.

Bronko...the name just says 'football'

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