February, 2011

Feb 11

The Big Short, by Michael Lewis

Great book, and fun to read, like all of Lewis’ books. Absolutely, 100% infuriating to read, as so many of the people involved in the financial system collapse were idiots at best and criminal at worst – but of course they took home big paydays. I really recommend this book — it was easier to read than Sorkin’s Too Big to Fail, which was good, but ultimately a little too chatty. While Sorkin’s book focused mostly on the heads of the banks, Lewis instead focused on the guys on the outside who figured out early how busted the markets were and who were able to take out big bets against the system. They were all, by definition, outsiders and misfits — and ultimately while they made the situation worse, they weren’t really fundamentally responsible.

Anyway, everyone should understand what this book is about, and how profoundly we were let down by those in positions of power, again & again.

Feb 11

Unconventional Success, by David Swensen

Great book on fundamentals of investing by David Swensen, who runs Yale’s endowment investing. Recommended to me by a good friend and very smart investment manager — it’s a great, fundamentals-oriented look at investing. Nothing particularly sexy in it, but great stuff, and tremendously helpful.

Feb 11

Homo Evolutis, by Juan Enriquez & Steve Gullans

This was an interesting read — argument by Enriquez and Gullans that any number of indicators (not to mention, you know, millennia of history) suggest that humans aren’t the endpoint, but just another point on the timeline of evolution. That main point is obvious, even though we probably don’t really think about ourselves that way too much. The supporting arguments are all interesting — will change the way you look at yourself.

On this one I was actually more interested in the format than the content — it’s one of the so-called “Kindle Singles” from Amazon now — writings that wouldn’t normally be long enough for a “real book” but obviously are no problem in digital form. it’s a little like a longer essay than anything else — lately I’ve been reading those more in Instapaper or Read It Later than on my Kindle. Not sure it represents too much of a breakthrough, other than giving the publishing industry fits.

Anyway, interesting essay, and a good warmup leading up to TED this week. 🙂

Feb 11

NY Times on Tweet/Life Balance

In today’s New York Times Business Section, there’s a piece on the current state of work life balance, in an age of iPhones and Twitter (more or less). I’m quoted in it a little bit, so figured I would write some about the conversation I had with the writer and some thoughts that didn’t make it into the piece.

I talked with Mickey (the author) while I was taking time off between Mozilla and Greylock, right after I had written this blog post on disconnecting. I got connected to her via Bob Sutton, who’s in the article as well, and who’s always thoughtful and very quotable. Before I took off for vacation, my partner David Sze suggested to me that I totally disconnect from everything, saying that I would find the silence precious. He was right, for sure — but I just couldn’t really figure out how to do it. Too much of my life now is tangled up in e-mail, Twitter, Facebook, others. I think of myself as essentially an introvert, but I get a lot out of having the social connectivity that I do online. It’s all just become a part of my life that is very, very hard to turn off — it’s a little bit like turning off “talking to the neighbors,” at least for me.

I can’t really tell you if this is good, bad or indifferent — it is what it is. It does feel different than even a couple of years ago. As I mentioned in the article, it’s become a sort of “peripheral vision” — I can generally keep track of how people I care about and work with are feeling by reading what they tweet about and share on Facebook. How much they’re sharing is pertinent, too — you can sort of see some of the ebbs and flows of peoples’ lives.

One of the things that didn’t make it into the article is that I found engaging on Twitter indispensable for managing effectively at Mozilla. Hewlett & Packard used to talk about “managing by walking around” — the idea that the best way to understand what’s happening in an organization is just to walk around and observe it yourself. To meet people where they work, to talk with them about whatever is on their mind, to ask lots of questions. I really, really believe in doing that — more than being useful, I just really enjoyed doing it.

With so many Mozillians distributed around the world, living in Twitter became a modern sort of walking around for me. I followed and interacted with dozens of folks this way over the last couple of years. Clearly, not everyone was there — and we have a couple of other online forums that are probably even more important (IRC & Bugzilla) — but many were. And it was a great way to understand what was top of mind for folks, to understand who was feeling discouraged, who was feeling ready for new things. And just to commune with each other, really. I learned a lot by thinking about it that way.

Mozilla is unusual in its openness, so it’s hard for me to completely generalize from that experience — because of the open product roadmap and the open community involvement, doing all this stuff on the public internet was pretty natural. Obviously many (most?) companies won’t be able to do it quite like this. Conversely, I don’t think the closed, enterprise-only systems like Jive, Yammer & others are as diverse and rich in information (although they’re very clearly useful and will be successful). But as organizations become more agile, more distributed, more mixed in with other organizations in their processes and workforces, I think we’ll start to see tools that enable this peripheral vision or managing by walking around across boundaries that used to be more distinct.

Anyway, as to the main point of the article, I obviously haven’t really done much disconnecting at all. It was nice to try for a few days, but also felt like a lot of life was missing. For good or bad, for better or worse — this is life and work in modern times. We’re all learning together how to make sense of ubiquitous connectivity, of persistent projections of ourselves online, and the tensions between our physical world and our increasingly meaningful virtual one.

Feb 11

Social Artifacts

One more post that’s (somewhat) related to books and that’s it for the morning.

I’ve written about the rise of eBooks and the disappearance of physical books from our home and other spaces before; as I’ve said, I’m worried that we’re losing some of the manifestations-in-the-real-world of our personalities — signals to ourselves and to others about who we are, what we care about, and what our values are. You might call the general category Social Artifacts or Cultural Artifacts.

Social artifacts are everywhere you look, of course. They’re the items we put on our desks, the pictures we put on our walls, the clothes we wear, the vehicles we ride in, etc etc. Lots of items we have in our lives show implicit values.

[aside: There is, for sure, a difference between what we imply by the choices we make and what others infer about us. I’m glossing over that distinction a bit, but maybe will come back to it.]

There’s a reason why books do such a good job of communicating values, though: there are a lot of choices, and they’re deep choices. While it’s likely that I might love a few books that are the same as the ones that you really love — but there’s just about no chance that in a collection of 20 or 30 that we’d have the same set. And so there’s a richness in the information you get from seeing what books someone has in their house, or that they’re carrying around to read on their lunch breaks over time. With books disappearing from our public and private spaces (we can argue about the pace that it’s happening at, I think, but not about whether it’s starting), we’re seeing different types of signals, but I think they’re more generic. What clothes you wear, what furniture you like, what smart phone you use. (Which, I have to say, is a bizarre social signal. We are not our computers.)

More and more of these social artifacts are virtual, absolutely, and there’s infinite richness there. But it’s pretty uneven. For some people, it’s pretty easy to see their collection of social artifacts because they’ve lived online for a long time and have often curated them. Joi Ito probably has the clearest set of signals, and he’s been working on that for years. Myself, I’m relatively knowable, between my blog, tweets, etc etc. I’ve been playing this week with my profile on Shelfari, too — it’s now got my 15 year media purchase history from Amazon on it — but it isn’t really right. It’s taking my old, physical artifacts and grafting them onto the virtual world.

But for people who aren’t wired a little funny like Joi or me, sometimes it can be hard to see their social artifacts spread around the web. Lots are in Facebook & Twitter. For some people, lots are in Flickr.

Anyway, no real conclusions here. Like every generation, the next generation will find their own ways to express themselves and to interpret others. I think while we’re in the midst of this transition towards more of our lives happening in the ether, we’ll see lots of weird juxtapositions like Shelfari showing collections on screens around the house, and they’ll always look a bit like misfits.

So I guess my takeaway here, in this post that’s a little all over the place, is that I’ll miss books as communicators of personality and values, but am on the lookout for emerging systems and am really, really interested in how we’ll all use them.