The Science of Popularity: A Review of Hit Makers

In Hit Makers, Derek Thompson tries to explain why some ideas become popular and others fade away. It’s an important question and one facing every content creator in today’s hyper-competitive media landscape. Technology platforms like Spotify, Facebook, and Twitter have transformed media into a winner take’s all market. How does a new band break through on Spotify—when the top one percent of acts capture 80 percent of recorded music revenue? How can a television show break through hundreds of channels and streaming options? How can an unknown writer catch-on? Hit Makers claims to answer these questions. Unfortunately, Thompson fails to offer new insights to this question. Instead, Hit Makers is a book on how cultural hits are created, published in 2017, with arguments from 2010.

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Nixonland: How a book about Richard Nixon helps explains Donald Trump

The central thesis of Nixonland, a sprawling look at the origin, rise, and decline of the Nixon administration, is that there was simmering white resentment underneath the optimism and change of the Kennedy Administration. Hidden behind the civil rights movement was a mass of unhappy middle-class white people. Nixon wasn’t the first politician to exploit white rage, that honor would go to Ronald Reagan. Nixon merely copied it, perfected it, and fractured the nation into Nixonland. Richard Nixon, Ron Perlstein writes, “so brilliantly co-opted the liberals’ populism.” Re-directing well-meaning reforms, “into a white middle-class rage at the sophisticated, the wellborn, the “best circles” — all those who looked down their noses at “you and me”…that sneered imperiously at the simple faiths of ordinary folk, their simple patriotism, their simple pleasures.”

In 1964, Lyndon B. Johnson won 61.05 percent of the popular vote on a platform of expanding FDR’s New Deal to non-white Americans. Its sole goal was to eradicate poverty and racial injustice. He coined it the “Great Society.” When lighting the national Christmas Tree, President Lyndon Johnson described it as “the most hopeful times since Christ was born in Bethlehem.” Eight years later Richard Nixon won 60.67 percent of the vote on a platform of “Law and Order”; an ideological repudiation of the Great Society. Nixonland is fundamentally about this uniquely American transformation. How America went from believing civil rights law leveled the playing field to one that held it caused race riots. How it went from viewing welfare as help for the weakest to help for the laziest. How political dissent became tantamount to treason. Nixon was at the center of it all, weaponizing a white populace’s fears into an “us versus them” political revolution. “Far from becoming a great society,” Nixon wrote in Reader’s Digest leading up to his Presidential election, “ours is becoming a lawless society.” The underlying context was that only Richard Nixon, and people like him, could protect society from the hordes of others.

Sound familiar?

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A Review of Joshua Greene’s Devil’s Bargain

Joshua Greene’s Devil’s Bargain is ostensibly about Steve Bannon, arguably mainstream Democrats biggest boogeyman not named Vladimir Putin.

The book, of course, covers his evolution from the Navy to Goldman Sachs, to World of Warcraft, to Hollywood, and to (supposedly) anti-Goldman right-wing crusader. However, the book is really about how three well-financed forces coalesced and resulted in the election of Donald Trump to President of the United States.

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Book Review: The Warmth of Other Suns

With a scope wide as it is personal, Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns paints a historical picture of one of the largest, but least reported events in the 21st century: the mass northern migration of African Americans.

Despite losing the Civil War, an open caste system remained in the South. Blacks were restricted in both their opportunities and possibilities. Most were relegated to sharecropping—in practice a form of pseudo-slavery. Voting was technically legal but practically unheard of. Lynchings were common.  At the turn of the 20th century, 90% of African Americans lived in the south. By the end of the 1960s, roughly half called the North home.

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Book Review: How Not to Network a Nation

In the thirty-some years since it fell, American analysis of the Soviet Union has been reduced to one sentiment: communism failed because capitalism is superior. Professional people—especially ones employed by media companies—spend an awful lot of time and energy attempting to rationalize its downfall through clichéd ideological arguments. They bring up the work of Hayek, stories about full grocery aisles, or simply argue that people are too self-interested for mass collectivism to work.

And yes, I understand and even agree with many of these arguments, but it’s also lazy. It’s like analyzing the most recent Super Bowl and concluding that the New England Patriots won because they wanted it more. In How Not To Network a Nation Benjamin Peters provides an exhaustive look at one of the functional problems that plagued the Soviet experiment: information.
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Book Review: The Most Powerful Idea in the World by William Rosen

I read The Most Powerful Idea in the World, William Rosen’s book about the invention of the steam engine, for two reasons, one of which was Bill Gates’ glowing recommendation. In his review, he raved about how Rosen was one of the first people to successfully argue that patent law had a large impact on innovation.

Since I am working on a project that looks at the impact of legal systems on innovation it only seemed natural. But I had a reservation. Not about the time period, I’d read a few books about the industrial revolution this year. It’s the simple fact that most books on innovation suck. They’re filled with bland platitudes and offer generic advice that is obvious to anyone with five years of business experience and a subscription to Harvard Business Review.

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Classic Read: How Democrats Killed Their Populist Soul

Matt Stoller’s How Democrats Killed Their Populist Soul is the best political analysis I’ve read all year. It offers a solid argument to how economic populism fell out of the national narrative—and accelerated the decline of the American middle class.

It’s hard to believe today, but seventy years ago Bernie Sander’s ideas were fairly common on the left. Stoller traces how they became rare. He examines the forces that moved the Democratic party from one in fierce opposition to monopoly power to one that embraced it. I really do hope Stoller has a larger thesis in mind, because I’d love to read a book on it.

I’d recommend reading the entire piece. However, I wrote up some highlights for the lazy below.

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The Forgotten Falk Corporation

Like many great companies, today the Falk Corporation is forgotten. At its height, it perfected the silicon chips of the industrial era. Falk designed and manufactured fat gears and thin gears, cheap gears and expensive gears, gears that could open the Panama Canal, and gears that fit on a small desk. It made gears for engines, dams, trains, conveyor belts, subway systems—any industry that needed to transfer power probably used Falk Gears.

There’s a good argument to be made that after a century of dominating the industrial era, it fell victim to the innovator’s dilemma. Falk’s corpse was sold for $295 million in 2005. Today it doesn’t even have a proper Wikipedia page.

I began researching the Falk Corporation because I wanted to learn more about the innovation network of Silicon Valley. It may seem odd to research a defunct Milwaukee-based gear manufacturer for this, but it makes sense when you ponder the history. By every conceivable measure Silicon Valley is the epic center of modern innovation. The bulk of the software and algorithms that power the world are designed inside the 20 mile region. Its evolution is also fairly straightforward: government subsidies, elite education system, solid business support and infrastructure, etc. In the early 1900s, as crazy as it sounds, that innovation epic center may have been Milwaukee. The industry was industrial metal fabrication, and in a span of about twenty years 10-15 companies that would dominate the mid 1900s sprouted within few miles. Six came from a 3-4 block radius in what is now known as Walker’s Point: Pawling & Harnischfeger (cranes), Kearney & Trecker (milling), A.O. Smith (car frames), Allis Chambers (everything), Nordberg and Chain Belt (mining equipment).

That’s what set me down the Falk Corporation’s path. I was trying to discover why it came to be, and what it means for today’s world–specifically building an innovation based economy. Here’s a super annotated version of my notes on the early history of the Falk Corporation. They’re primarily derived from the Milwaukee Public Library’s vast resources and the work of Milwaukee historian John Gurda.

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Book Review: Rana Foroohar’s Makers and Takers

In 1946, over a decade before he became the architect of the Vietnam War, Robert McNamara was hired to rehaul the Ford Motor Company. It was in desperate need of help. The iconic corporation was hemorrhaging about $9 million a month. McNamara, an accountant by training who rose to prominence by applying statistical methods to warfare planning, immediately transformed the culture.

Decisions were no longer made from the eye of a designer, or the experience of the line-worker. He immediately developed complex financial metrics to measure a product’s viability. Every penny spent in manufacturing, marketing, design, and engineering had to be justified and rationalized through this analysis. It shifted power from engineers to MBAs. Within three years he doubled the company’s profits. In Makers and Takers, Rana Foroohar argues that this was the end of American global automobile leadership. As crazy as it sounds, the question needs to be asked: Did modern finance destroy innovation?

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