Category Archives: Must watch or read

Harari is already back! 21 Lessons for the 21st Century

When I saw Harari‘s third book, I had some concerns. Could he write another great book after amazing Sapiens but less good Homo Deus. And why so fast?

Indeed the first part of 21 Lessons for the 21st Century is scary not to say very bad. It is full of anxiety and I am not sure it is based on facts or even truth like his previous books… Indeed this first part is even misleading because when I read “Sapiens explored the past, Homo Deus explored the future and 21 lessons explores the present” on the book cover, I discovered the first part is about the possible scary future based on artificial intelligence and biotechnologies. But this is the future, not the present.

Fortunately, I recovered the Harari I like in the beginning of part II. In chapter 5, Community, he shows that we are real, physical beings, not virtual, augmented ones. In chapter 6, Civilization, he fights against the concept of clash of civilizations. “There is one civilization in the world” is the subtitle. So let me just quote Harari here [Pages 94-5]

More importantly, the analogy between history and biology that underpins the ‘clash of civilisations’ thesis is false. Human groups – all the way from the small tribes to huge civilisations – are fundamentally different from animal species, and historical conflicts greatly differ from natural selection processes. Animal species have objective identities that endure for thousands upon thousands of generations. Whether you are a chimpanzee or a gorilla depends on your genes rather than your beliefs, and different genes dictate distinct social behaviours. Chimpanzees live in mixed groups of males and females. They compete for power in building coalitions of supporters from among both sexes. Amid gorillas, in contrast, a single dominant male establishes a harem of females, and usually expels any adult male that might challenge his position. Chimpanzees cannot adopt gorilla- like social arrangements; gorillas cannot start organizing themselves like chimpanzees; and as far as we know exactly the same social systems have characterized chimpanzees and gorillas not only in recent decades, but for hundreds of thousands of years.
You find nothing like that among humans. Yes, human groups may have distinct social systems, but these are not genetically determined, and they seldom endure for more than a few centuries. Think of twentieth-century Germans, for example. In less than a hundred years the Germans organized themselves into six very different systems: the Hohenzollern Empire, the Weimar Republic, the Third Reich, the German democratic Republic (aka communist East Germany), the Federal Republic of Germany (aka West Germany), and finally democratic reunited Germany. Of course, the Germans kept their language and their love of beer and bratwurst. But is there some unique German essence that distinguishes them from all other nations, and that has remained unchanged from Wilhelm II to Angela Merkel? And if you come up with something, was it also there 1,000 years ago or 5,000 years ago?

Humor and bureaucracy (Part II)

This is the second and final part of an unusual post topic, humor and bureaucracy. See part I if you missed it.

The author has a comment in the end, which is interesting. ‘The problem with you is that you refuse to take anything seriously – not Communism, not me… Not even yourself.’ ‘That’s true,’ I said ‘but I take not taking anything seriously very seriously.’ [Page 307]

´The Communist economy was very bad at producing everything – except jokes. They were very good at jokes.´ [Page 222]

Many Communist jokes were adapted into ones referring to the shortcomings of Western economies. ´Why does an Austin Allegro have a heated rear window? So you can keep your hands warm when you push it’. [Page 300]

How does a clever Russian Jew talk to a stupid Russian Jew?
by telephone from new York.
[Page 211]

What is the definition of a Russian string quartet?
A Soviet orchestra back from a US tour.
[Page 212]

Do you know why Romania will survive the end of the world?
Because it is fifty years behind everyone else! [Page 263]

My favorite one follows…

Leonid Brezhnev wanted to commission a portrait to be entitled ´Lenin in Poland’. Russian painters, being schooled strictly in the Realist school, were unable to paint an event that had never actually occurred,
´Comrade Brezhnev, we would like to do it, but we cannot. It goes against our training,´ replied each of the man artists approached by Brezhnev. Finally, in desperation, Brezhnev was forced to ask the old Jewish painter Levy.
´of course, I prefer to portray actual events, but I’ll do the painting for you, Comrade. It would be my great honour.´ Levy commenced work on the painting.
Finally the day of the unveiling arrived. Everyone gasped as the cloth was removed to reveal the picture of a man in bed with a woman who looked like Lenin’s wife.
Brezhnev asked, horrified, ´Who is that man?
´That’s Trotsky said the artist.
´And who,´ Brezhnev enquired, is that woman?´
´That is Lenin’s wife, Comrade Brezhnev.´
´But where is Lenin?´
´He’s in Poland,´ Levy explained.

[Page 207]

Now you may want to explore your favorite ones…

Why did Aaron Swartz die?

As a follow-up of my previous post Aaron Swartz – The Idealist, here are a few additional notes from this very moving and intelligent book.

So why did he die? You must read the book. But here is a sentence close to the end [page 268]: “Swartz saw things differently, and, indeed, devoted much of his life to the notion that the only way that the world ever improved was by allowing people to open things up. This notion […] is Swartz’s legacy. It is also his challenge to the world he left behind.”

Corporations continue to deploy law and rhetoric to combat the situational ethics of unauthorized downloading, to argue that copyright is a zero-sum game. Conflicts recur. The actors may change, but the script remains the same. [Page 271]

A surprising argument is against Apple and Steve Jobs: Swartz depicted Apple as “a ruthless, authoritarian organization” that flouted labor standards and Jobs himself as a martinet who insisted on controlling every aspect of the user experience. His megalomania manifested in Apple’s portable music players: sterile white rectangles that could be neither opened nor modified by the end user. “Jobs couldn’t abide people opening things”. [Page 267]

A stronger quote taken from Swartz’s blog: Since power over human beings is shown in making them do what they would rather not do, the man who is actuated by love of power is more apt to inflict pain than to permit pleasure. If you ask your boss for leave of absence from the office on some legitimate occasion, his love of power will derive more satisfaction from a refusal than from a consent. If you require a building permit, the petty official concerned will obviously get more pleasure from saying «No» than from saying «Yes». It is this sort of thing which makes the love of power such a dangerous motive. — Bertrand Russell [Page 254]

Peters would like to have a balanced view of the situation: Property holders are but one party to the social contract. That is supposed to govern our polity, and their interests are not the only ones that matter. There is a middle ground between functionally eternal copyright and wholesale anarcho-syndicalism. [Page 268]

Advice to young (and old) people by Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba

Thanks to my dear colleagues for mentioning to me this moving, inspiring interview from Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba. He is giving advice to people from any age related to work and entrepreneurship.

If you’re 25 years old, do not worry, any mistake is an income.

Before 20 years old, be a good student.
Before 30 years old, follow somebody. Go to a small company, you learn the passion, you learn to dream. It’s not which company you go, it’s which boss you follow.
Between 30 and 40 years old, work for yourself. Time to be an entrepreneur.
Between 40 and 50 years old, do the thing you are good at. It’s too late to do something new.
When you are 50 to 60 years old, work for the young people.
When you are over 60, spend time for yourself. Go to the beach!

But when you are 25, make enough mistakes. You fall, you stand up, you fall, you stand up.

Aaron Swartz – The Idealist

I had heard like many of you probably of Aaron Swartz who committed suicide in January 2013 at age 26 after being prosecuted for computer fraud. So when I was advised to read The Idealist, I did not hesitate much before buying it.

The book is divided in two parts: a short history of copyright in the USA since the beginning of the nineteenth century and the story of Aaron Swartz himself. In the first part, the author, Justin Peters, shows the complexity of one of the pillars of intellectual property. You may have a look at my previous posts on the topic with tag #intellectual-property and particularly the profound work of Boldrin and Levine Against Intellectual Monopoly. I will only mention a short paragraph, page 46, of Peters’ book: But in nineteenth-century America, the concept of intellectual property was not yet sacrosanct – and the interests of the readers were not inextrically bound to those of authors. In congressional chambers, lawmakers openly wondered whether international copyright constituted a tax on knowledge and compared literary property to industrial monopoly.


© The Dusty Rebel

As for Aaron Swartz, Three years after [he] died, his story is still on many people’s minds. A large street-art mural of his face, set next to the words RIP AARON SWARTZ, adorns the side of a building in Brooklyn. […] Every year around his birthday , Swartz’s friends and admirers worldwide organize a series of weekend-long “hackatons” intended to stimulate the sorts of social projects Swartz cherished. [Page 14]

Work Rules! by Laszlo Bock – Conclusion: the obligation to dissent

It took me a while to read Bock’s book. It is dense, ambitious, convincing, despite the fact that “Google sounds too good to be true” [Page 318]. There would be so much to say and the diversity of topics addressed by Bock is so broad. If you deal with people, if you manage teams, I think you should read it (I do not manage people and still I think it will be immensely useful to me!).

Another example after my four posts: Bock mentions of of McKinsey values: “uphold the obligation to dissent” [Page 319]. And an example follows on the same page: I was serving a client whose merger was yet to prove disastrous. The client asked for a recommendation on how best to set up a venture capital business. The data were pretty clear. Aside from a few notable examples, like Intel Capital,most corporate venture-capital efforts were failures. they lacked the expertise, clarity of purpose, and physical proximity to where the most lucrative deals were being hatched. I told the senior partner it was a bad idea. I showed him the data. I explained that there were almost no examples of these kinds of efforts being successful, and none that I could find that were thousands of miles outside of Silicon Valley and run by people who lacked any engineering background.
He told me that the client was asking how to set it up, not whether to to set it up, and that I should focus on answering the client’s question.
Perhaps he was right. Or perhaps he had some superior insight into the issue that trumped my data, Maybe he’d already made that argument to the client, and they’d rejected it.
But to me it felt like I’d failed.I thought the obligation to dissent required me to speak up, so it was all the more gut-wrenching to see my concern brushed aside.

Again Google might sound too good to be true, but this is the 5th or 6th book I read about Google from insiders and from outsiders, and the messages are quite consistent. A final quote from page 339: In the introduction I posited that there are two extreme models of how organizations should be run. The heart of this book is my belief that you can choose what type of organizations you want to create, and I’d be shown you some of the tools to do so. The “low-freedom” extreme is the command-and-control organization, where employees are managed tightly, worked intensely, and discarded.The “high-freedom” extreme is based on liberty, where employees are treated with dignity and given a voice in how the company evolves.
Both models can be very profitable, but this book presumes that the most talented people on the planet will want to be part of a freedom-driven company. And freedom-driven companies, because they benefit form the best insight and passion of all their employees are more resilient and better sustain success.

Steve Jobs: “Just Ask”

It’s a famous story for Silicon Valley and Steve Jobs fans. But I had never seen it told by the founder of Apple himself. It shows not only what an entrepreneur is but also the openness of the region at the time and probably still today… It’s nice and short… Watch it.

“I never found anybody that did not want to help me if I asked them for help”

Thanks to the student who gave me the link! 🙂

Business Lessons by Kleiner Perkins (Part IV): Straight Talk for Startups – Randy Komisar

I promised more about Straight Talk for Startups in my previous post which was describing the book first part. After Mastering the Fundamentals, which is indeed a fundamental must-read, his part II about Selecting the Right Investors is as good.

But before describing these 13 new rules, let me jump directly to rule #100: Learn the rules by heart so you know when to break them.
“Apprentices work furiously to learn the rules; journeymen proudly perfect the rules; but masters forget the rules. So it’s been since the Middle Ages, and venture capital and entrepreneurship are no different. The venture capital world is minting more and more apprentices, while the masters, like Tom perkins, are few and far between.
The rules in this book are battled-tested. Acquainting yourself with them will help you spot issues before they arise. Intuition is not just fast thinking from the gut; it is good judgement informed by knowledge.
Most rules are made for the average situation; they are meant to be broken when circumstances require. Our rules are no diffeent. Let these rules serve as touchstones to guide you own difficult decisions along the way, not millstones to bug you down. Only you can decide which rules to apply, bend, or ignore as you face your own novel problems and opportunities.
You may well find a rule or two that you adamantly disagree with. If we have encouraged you to examine your own experience and arrive at a considered but contraditocry conclusion, then we have done our job. Just don’t mistake an exceptional event for a guiding principle.
We are seldom able to achieve exactly what we want in business. Compromise is not a dirty word. But you will do better in the end if you acquaint yourself with what others have done before. You know best, so be fearless, trust your intuition, and make you own rules ocne you’ve mastered these.”

And here are rules 29 to 41:
#29: Don’t accept money from strangers
#30: Incubators are good for finding investors, nor for developing businesses
#31: Avoid venture capital unless you absolutely need it
#32: If you choose venture capital, pick the right type of investors
#33: Conduct detailed due diligence on your investors
#34: Personal wealth ≠ good investing
#35: Choose investors who think like operators
#36: Deal directly with the decision makers
#37: Find stable investors
#38: Select investors who can help future financings
#39: Investor syndicates need to be managed
#40: Capital-intensive venture require deep financial pockets
#41: Strategic investors pose unique challenges

I do not know if I will add a post about this book but these two should have been enough to convince you of the quality of Straight Talk for Startups.

Business Lessons by Kleiner Perkins (Part III): Straight Talk for Startups – Randy Komisar

With subtitle 100 Insider Rules for Beating the Odds–From Mastering the Fundamentals to Selecting Investors, Fundraising, Managing Boards, and Achieving Liquidity, Randy Komisar has an ambitious goal in writing his new book Straight Talk for Startups and he executes!

Komisar is a Silicon Valley veteran (and brilliant) investor. I have already mentioned here his previous books The Monk and The Riddle and Getting to Plan B, as well as many of his advice. In his new book, he is trying to give precious advice because “entrepreneurs today don’t have the luxury of learning by trail and error.” [page xix of the introduction]. The Times They Are A-Changin’ and the stakes are just too high…So Komisar gives “the crucial things, like creating two financial plans, not one; hiring part-time epxerts rather than full-time trainees; knowing what to measure and the pitfalls of doing it too early: and the criticality of unit economics and working capital.” [Page 1]. I have to admit I was a little surprised with reading the previous sentence, but after discovering the next first rules, Komisar convinced me again.

If you do not have any time for reading the book, which would be a real pity, at least have a look at his 100 rules. Here are the first 28 form his Part 1 – Mastering the fundamentals:
#1: starting a venture has never been easier, succeeding has never been harder
#2: try to act normal
#3: aim for an order-of-magnitude improvement
#4: start small, but be ambitious
#5: most failures result from poor execution, not unsuccessful innovation
#6: the best ideas originate with founders who are users
#7: don’t scale your technology until it works
#8: manage with maniacal focus
#9: target fast-growing, dynamic markets
#10: never hire the second best
#11: conduct your hiring as if you were an airline pilot
#12: a part-time expert is preferable to a full-time seat filler
#13: maage your team like a jazz band
#14: instead of a free lunch, provide meaningful work
#15: teams of professionals with a common mission make the most attractive investments
#16: use your financials to tell your story
#17: create two business plans: an execution élan and an aspirational plan
#18: know your financial numbers and their interdependencies by heart
#19: net income is an opinion,, but cash flow is a fact
#20: unit economics tell you whether you have a business
#21: manage working capital as if it were your only source of funds
#22: exercise the strictest financial discipline
#23: always be frugal!
#24: to get where you are going, you need to know where you are going
#25: measurements comes with pitfalls
#26: operational setbacks require swift and deep cutbacks
#27: save surprises for birthdays, not for you stakeholders
#28: strategic pivots offer silver linings

It is a great complement to Measure What Matters and the proof (if what was needed) of how great great venture capitalists are…!

More to come.

Business Lessons by Kleiner Perkins (Part II): Bill Campbell by John Doerr

My Part II should have been about Komisar’s Straight Talk for Startups, but it will be my Part III. I just finished Measure what Matters, the topic of my Part I, and I must admit I was impressed to the point I needed to have a Part II dedicated to it again.

I was impressed by the last chapter dedicated to “Coach” Bill Campbell. It is a very moving portrait of one of the least known celebrities of Silicon Valley. The Coach, the coach of Steve Jobs and the Google triumvirate, Page, Brin and Schmidt and of so many others.

I was also impressed by the subtlety of the message about OKRs. So difficult to explain as it may take a life to digest them. But the book is really enlightening. OKRs have four ingredients, focus, transparency, accountability and ambition (the BHAG – Big Hairy Audacious Goal). It is scary and at the same time generous. I think any leader should read that book…