Ranking the 29 best books I read in 2016

2016 was a bizarre year. Donald Trump won the Presidential election. The Chicago Cubs won the World Series. Uber grew its revenue and still lost $3 billionIt’s been 1,000 days since a major American suburb has poisonous water--and nothing has been done. General Electric re-made itself–again. A 74-year-old socialist almost won a major party’s Presidential nomination. The long-awaited digital revolution is finally happening. Solar power is now cheaper than fossil fuels. Thirty years of social change seemed to hit at once.

Like I said. 2016 was a bizarre year. Thankfully, books can help us make sense of what’s happening and what’s driving the trends. In a recent interview with the New York Times, President Obama remarked that reading allowed him to better digest the constant bombardment of information pointed at the office. It slowed the assault, helped separate the signal from the noise, and gave him perspective. Here are the books I read in 2016 along with a quick recap of the context they provide to the ever changing landscape. If reading recommendations are your thing, here are my recommendations for 2014 and 2015.

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Book Review: Dawn of Innovation by Charles Morris

In Dawn of Innovation Charles Morris argues that America’s economic dominance wasn’t driven by science, technology or ingenuity, but our commitment to mass production (scale). “The dominating American characteristic across all major industries,” he writes, “was the push for scale—adapting the production methods, the use of machinery, and the distribution to suit the product.” Viewing the world through this lenses reveals two myths; applying it to modern times illuminates the biggest issue facing modern governments—How to scale innovation in a knowledge economy.

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Jon Gerner’s The Idea Factory

Bell Labs, the world’s most innovative organization in history, had a simple view on innovation. Whatever improvement came out of their Murray Hill headquarters had to do the job “better, or cheaper, or both” than its predecessor. In thirty years, this philosophy allowed the company to develop semiconductors, lasers, fiber optics, solar panels, the Unix operating system, the C++ programing language, cellular phone networks, and much more. At its peak, America’s monopolistic telephone company was one of the most profitable organizations in the world. In his book The Idea Factory, Jon Gertner makes the case that nearly every single improvement in modern communications can be traced back to one lab, at one company—AT&T. Trillions of dollars in economic growth, millions of jobs, all from one group.

The question is, what can we learn from Bell Labs?

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Ranking the Best 34 Books I Read in 2015

Contrary to what I want to believe 2015 is nearing an end and that means it is time to create my annual list of recommended books. If 2014 was my personal apocalypse, 2015 was the most demanding, unpredictable, and rewarding year of my life. Reading-wise I found myself diving head first into the civil rights movement and graphic novels, only to circle back to sports, entrepreneurship and science fiction. Hopefully you find something on this list worth reading; I know I did. If reading recommendations are your thing, check out last year’s The Best 38 Books I read in 2014 and The Best 27 Articles I Read in 2014.

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The 27 Best Articles I Read In 2014

Why spend the time identifying the 27 best articles I read all year? The better question should probably be, “Why not?” I selected each article based on the following criteria:

  1. The work should most importantly be interesting
  2. The work should help explain the business, political and social world we live in.
  3. The work should provide historical context to the modern world.
  4. The work should make you laugh (See Jones, Jerry)

Without further ado, here they are.

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5 Articles You Must Read About Martin Luther King Jr

Today marks the 46th anniversary of the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. If Thurgood Marshall was the tactical leader of the civil rights movement, King was its spiritual. It is hard to imagine anyone accomplishing more in his or her life than King, who lead non-violent protest across America and won the Nobel Prize abroad. Legacy wise, nearly every constituency has attached themselves to King, even conservatives. This is ironic since most conservatives would disown King if they knew about his opposition to Vietnam and his dream to unite the labor and civil rights movements. I’m sure today there will be hundreds of superficial articles published King, but very few will address the context of his life. I’ve gone ahead and curated five articles that do just that.

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Average is Over and Obama’s New Manufacturing Initiative

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ast week President Obama announced plans to build a high tech industrial institute in Raleigh, North Carolina. The public/academic/private partnership will produce next-generation semiconductors, and is the first of 3 planned manufacturing projects by the Administration. “We’re not going to turn things around overnight,” President Obama told the crowd, but “we are going to start bringing those jobs back to America.” Stump speeches are great, but change happens is in the details, and the details haven’t been answered yet. The News Observer reported that specifics of the agreement “remain to be worked out in contract negotiations.”

One thing is clear, American manufacturing has been devastated in the last 20 years. The cause differs depending on which side of the political isle you stand, but it is hard not to believe that poor policy hastened the decline. According to a 2012 Yale study, the establishment of normal trade relations with China directly contributed to America shedding about 6 million manufacturing jobs from 1970 to 2007. Others  argue about labor unions killed the factory, technology hastened the death, and  the  gravity of globalization made the preceeding two irrelevant. The simple fact is that America is now defined by cheap consumer goods, rising structural costs (healthcare and infrastructure) and stagnant incomes. “You have an economy,” Obama told  The New Yorker in January 2014“that is ruthlessly squeezing workers and imposing efficiencies that make our flat-screen TVs really cheap but also puts enormous downward pressure on wages and salaries.”

What do we do about it?

We start by turning one of the causes of the decline into the solution.

Essentially all economists agree that technology hastened the decline of American industrial labor, in fact I’d argue that most middle class jobs will be either replaced or supplemented by computers in the next twenty years. This is not unique to America or to modern information technology. Just as IT made many factory jobs expendable, the car killed horseshoe makers, and the cotton gin decimated hand weavers. In his latest book Average is Over, Economist Tyler Cowen chronicles the increased inequality of the American labor market, with a special focus on the impact of smart machines. Technology has replaced a large amount of middle class jobs with service jobs, and his underlying assumption is that artificial intelligence will do the same to accountants, lawyers and factory workers. The key questions facing future employees will be:

Are you good at working with intelligent machines or not? Are your skills a complement to the skills of the computer, or is the computer doing better without you? Worst of all, are you competing against the computer? Are computers helping people in China and India compete against you?

It is early, but these questions have not been answered yet. Will this initiative place workers in tandem with smart machines or in competition? If production and not analysis is the goal (Cowen argues that smart machines will eventually be used as a guide to production, where workers take a computer’s analysis into consideration but make the final decision), we may be jumping head first into a commodity pricing. The last 20 years have shown what happens when we tried to compete on price with humans. We can’t expect to win the battle against a computer.