Category Archives: Must watch or read

Harari is already back! 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (Part II)

Another short post following my initial one about Harari’s new book, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. Harari is clearly a broad, deep and impressive thinker. Whereas I was a little concerned with his first chapters, the middle ones are great. I will give you a few example below. But first have a look at the subtitles of all these 21 lessons:

Part I: The Technological Challenge
1. DISILLUSIONMENT – The end of history has been postponed
2. WORK – When you grow up, you might not have a job
3. LIBERTY – Big Data is watching you
4. EQUALITY – Those who own the data own the future

Part II: The Political Challenge
5. COMMUNITY – Humans have bodies
6. CIVILISATION – There is just one civilisation in the world
7. NATIONALISM – Global problems need global answers
8. RELIGION – God now serves the nation
9. IMMIGRATION – Some cultures might be better than others

Part III: Despair and Hope
10. TERRORISM – Don’t panic
11. WAR – Never underestimate human stupidity
12. HUMILITY – You are not the centre of the world
13. GOD – Don’t take the name of God in vain
14. SECULARISM – Acknowledge your shadow

Part IV: Truth
15. IGNORANCE – You know less than you think
16. JUSTICE – Our sense of justice might be out of date
17. POST-TRUTH – Some fake news lasts for ever
18. SCIENCE FICTION – The future is not what you see in the movies

Part V: Resilience
19. EDUCATION – Change is the only constant
20. MEANING – Life is not a story
21. MEDITATION – Just observe

In his 14th chapter, secularism, he uses a few keywords which are very enlighting. If puzzling for you, you will need to read his book. Secularism is defined by a coherent set of values: truth, compassion, equality, freedom, courage, and responsability [Pages 203-14]. In his next chapter, Ignorance, he has a very interesting analysis of power and truth: It is extremely hard to discover the truth when you are ruling the world. You are just too busy. Most political chiefs and business moguls are forever on the run. Yet if you want to go deeply into any subject, you need a lot of time, and in particular you need the privilege of wasting time. You need to experiment with unproductive paths, to explore dead ends, to make space for doubts and boredom. If you cannot afford to waste time – you will never find the truth. […] You need to waste a lot of time on the periphery – they may contain some brillinat revolutionary insights, but they are mostly full of uninformed guesses, debunked models, superstitious dogmas and ridiculous conspiracy theories. Leaders are thus trapped in a double bind. If they stay in the centre of power, they will have an extremely distorted vision of the world. If they venture to the margins, they will waste too much of their precious time. [Pages 220-2]

Grigori Perelman according to Masha Gessen

I had mentioned Grigori Perelman in a rather old post: 7 x 7 = (7-1) x (7+1) + 1. I discovered recently a new book about this exceptional mathematician, not so much about his achievements but more about his personality.

About Asperger’s Syndrome

I will not tell much Perelman here, Masha Gessen does it with talent. Let me just translate here form the French version I am reading: “It seems to me that many of the whistleblowers,” wrote Atwwod, “have Asperger’s Syndrome, I’ve met several who have applied the code of ethics of their company or government to their work and have reported wrongdoing and corruption in the workplace. All of them were surprised to see that their management and their colleagues did not understand their attitude. ”
So it is perhaps not a coincidence that the founders of dissident movements in the Soviet Union were among mathematicians and physicists. The Soviet Union was not the place for people who took things literally and expected the world to work in a predictable, logical and fair way.
[Pages 215-6, French edition]
[…]
One can also interpret the difficulties he experienced when he presented his solutions. If Perelman was suffering from Asperger’s syndrome, this inability to see “the big picture” is perhaps one of the most surprising traits. British psychologists Uta Frith and Francesca Happe talked about what they call the “low central coherence” characteristic of autism spectrum disorders. Autistics focus on details, to the detriment of the overall picture. When they manage to reconstitute it, it is because they have arranged the various elements, a little like the elements of the periodic table, in a systemic scheme that satisfies them to the extreme. “… the most interesting facts, wrote Poincaré, one of the greatest systematizing minds of all time, more than a century ago, are those who can be used many times, those who have a chance to happen many times. We have had the good fortune to be born in a world where there is are many; suppose that instead of sixty chemical elements we have sixty billion, that they are not common ones and rare ones, but they would be evenly distributed, so every time we pick up a new pebble, there would be a high probability that it would be made up of some unknown substances… […] In such a world, there would be no no science, perhaps no thought and even life would be impossible because evolution could not have developed the conservative instincts; thanks to God it is not so.”
People with Asperger’s syndrome apprehend the small pebble world by small pebble. Speaking of the existence of this syndrome in society, Attwood resorted to the metaphor of a five thousand-piece puzzle, “where normal people would have the full image on the lid” which would allow them to have global intuitions. Aspergers, they would not see this big picture and should try to nest the pieces one by one. So maybe rules like “never take off your hat” and 2lis all the books that are on the list “formed for Gricha Perelman a way to see the missing image on the lid, to encompass all the elements of the periodic table of the world It was only by clinging to these rules that he could live his life.
[Pages 217-8, French edition]

About power

Another interesting topic addressed by Misha Gessen is on page 236 of the French edition again:
– When he received the letter from the commission that invited him he replied that he did not speak with committees, said Gromov, and that is exactly what he did. They represent everything that one should never accept. And if this attitude seems extreme, it is only in relation to the conformism that characterizes the world of mathematics.
– But why refuse to talk to committees?
– We do not talk to committees, we talk to people! exclaimed Gromov, exasperated. How can we talk to a committee? Who knows who is on the committee? Who tells you that Yasser Arafat is not one of them?
– But he was sent the list of members, and he continued to refuse.
– The way it started, he was right not to answer, Gromov persisted. As soon as a community begins to behave like a machine, all that remains to do is to cut ties, and that’s all. The strangest thing is that there is no longer a mathematician who does the same. That’s what’s weird. Most people agree to deal with committees. They agree to go to Beijing and receive a prize from President Mao. Or the king of Spain, anyway, it’s the same!
– And why, I asked, could not the King of Spain have the honor of hanging a medal around Perelman’s neck?
– What is a king? Gromov asked, totally furious now. Kings are the same morons as the Communists. Why would a king award a medal to a mathematician? What allows it? It is nothing from a mathematical point of view. Same for the president. But there is one who has taken control of power like a thief and the other who inherited it from his father. It does not make any difference.
Unlike them, Gromov explains to me, Perelman had made a real contribution to the world.

It reminds me of a colleague’s quote: “There are not many statues for committees in public parks.”

It’s also worth mentioning here an article from the New Yorker that Gessen mentions too: Manifold Destiny. A legendary problem and the battle over who solved it by Sylvia Nasar and David Gruber. On a related topic, the authors quote Perelman whom they met: He mentioned a dispute that he had had years earlier with a collaborator over how to credit the author of a particular proof, and said that he was dismayed by the discipline’s lax ethics. “It is not people who break ethical standards who are regarded as aliens,” he said. “It is people like me who are isolated.” We asked him whether he had read Cao and Zhu’s paper. “It is not clear to me what new contribution did they make,” he said. “Apparently, Zhu did not quite understand the argument and reworked it.” As for Yau, Perelman said, “I can’t say I’m outraged. Other people do worse . Of course, there are many mathematicians who are more or less honest. But almost all of them are conformists. They are more or less honest, but they tolerate those who are not honest.”

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.