Spring Books

Some reading recommendations.

April 28, 2014

It has been a couple of months since we last checked in on the books that we’ve been reading.

I’m curious about what you’ve been reading in the last couple of months, and I have some recommendations for you:

Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace by Nikil Saval

Everyone on campus that I know believes that they are an expert on office design.  We think that our own office experiences translate into a set of actionable theories and profound insights.  

I’m actually very interested to hear about your office situation.  Do you have a door you can close?  Or do you work in an open set-up?  Do you have fabric or solid walls?  Is your work space open or private?  How does it work for you?

Our office set-up discussions would all be better informed if we all read Cubed.  I was equal parts relieved and distressed to learn that all of the debates that we have on our office environments come with a great deal of history.  We are not the first to wonder if our office designs continue to make sense for how we work today.   Cubed is a zesty mix of social and organizational history, media studies, and architectural criticism.  Our offices, and how our offices reflect and determine how we work, has a long and contested history.  We should probably know this history before setting out on our next office design project.

Blockbusters: Hit-making, Risk-taking, and the Big Business of Entertainment by Anita Elberse 

Blockbusters is the intellectual antidote to the confused thinking that Chris Anderson unleashed in his influential 2006 book The Long Tail.  Anderson’s thesis was that digital platforms have enabled the supply of information and entertainment content to match a long tail of demand, meaning that sales (and sales income) of the back catalogue of books or movies or anything else that can be translated into bytes will eventually rival the hits.  Elberse, a Harvard Business School Professor, looks at the data behind this claim and finds that reality does not support the assertions of The Long Tail.  Rather, the move to digital platforms is accentuating the power of the blockbuster rather than diminishing it.  A growing proportion of all revenues in entertainment industries comes from the few hits, and their sequels, that end up supporting the rest of the offerings.   

Blockbusters may contain some important lessons for higher education.  Elbersa argues that media companies that attempted to manage for margin, such as NBC did once hits such as Seinfeld/Friends/E.R. ended their runs, ended up costing their organizations dearly.  A failure to heavily invest in a few quality projects, and then to market and support quality products, puts the rest of the business at risk.  The lesson for higher ed is that we need to make big bets on our focused areas of strength.   We need to invest in departments and faculty where we are strong, and then then support these departments and faculty with a strong set of resources.   We cannot accomplish our mission by managing to margin, but rather we need to have the fortitude to make hard decisions about where investments should go.

Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt by Michael Lewis

Flash Boys seems to be getting lots of media attention.  I’m not sure if the interest in the book is more about the subject or that it is a Michael Lewis book.  Whatever motivates you to read Flash Boys, you will be rewarded with a fascinating tale about how the mechanics of stock investing have changed since computers and algorithms have mostly replaced the Wall Street trader.   

Lewis’ particular gift is an ability to turn complicated and arcane financial stories into compelling moral stories.  He tells the story of the transition of stock trading, and the rise of high frequency trading, through the journey of discovery that his characters (real people) must endure.  In Flash Boys, you learn a great deal about how the capital markets have changed (and what you learn will disturb you), but what will stick with are the stories of the people who are either fighting against or profiting from the new digital Wall Street reality.

The Next America: Boomers, Millennials, and the Looming Generational Showdown by Paul Taylor

A terrific primer on the key demographic and economic trends that will impact work, family, and political life in the US.  The Next America be on the shelf of every higher education leader attempting to navigate their institutions through the interrelated challenges of an aging population, wage stagnation, and population growth that is outside the traditional recruitment areas of many colleges and universities.

I don’t know about you, but I get an enormous amount of e-mail from Pew announcing the availability of new research findings.  Keeping up with the Internet research that Pew puts out could be a part-time job.  That is why Taylor’s book is so welcome.  Taylor synthesis the main findings of Pew’s research in an easily digestible, and relatively concise, format.  Having a single author, particularly one who writes as well as Taylor, greatly improves the experience of coming to grips with our most important demographic trends.

The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City by Alan Ehrenhalt

The great inversion that Ehrenhalt chronicles in this must read book is the increasing relevance of central urban areas in our economic and cultural geography.  Lots has been written about the decline of the suburbs and the invigoration of the urban core.  Where Ehrenhalt succeeds is to ground this story in close descriptions of the residential, planning, and migration stories of a number of urban areas.  New York City, Philadelphia, Denver, Phoenix, Charlotte and Chicago are amongst the places where Ehrenhalt brings us.  He combines a willingness to spend time on the ground, looking and around and reporting on what he sees, with a strong command of the economic forces and data that drive and describe urban change.  

Ehrenhalt’s argument is not that the suburbs will disappear.  The absolute numbers of people deciding to trade in suburban for urban life is actually relative small.  Rather, Ehrenhalt sees a change of preferences and desires.  One where young professionals and affluent empty nesters will desire urban walkable existences as opposed to large houses with big lawns and long commutes.   The suburbs, once the destination of those that could afford to live where they choose, are increasingly the landing spot for those residents (native born and immigrant alike) with less resources and therefore less choices.

What is left unexamined in The Great Inversion is what a changing preference for walkable urban life will mean to our urban, suburban, and rural college campuses.   Do you have any thoughts about where the urban and academic stories may come together?

Blood Will Out: The True Story of a Murder, a Mystery, and a Masquerade by Walter Kirn

I’ve been a Walter Kirn fan since reading Up In the Air, a terrific book that has the somewhat odd distinction of turning into an even more terrific movie.

The story of the man who called himself Clark Rockefeller was big news our town a few years back, as Cornish NH is just a few short miles from Dartmouth.   Blood Will Out tells the improbably but true story of Kirn’s years long acquaintanceship with Rockefeller (before he was unmasked as Christian Gerhartsreiter and convicted of murder), going back to 1998 when Kirn drove cross country from Montana to NYC to deliver Rockefeller an injured dog.  

Blood Will Out is partly the story of how Rockefeller/Gerhartsreiter came to create himself.  But it is mostly the story of how Kirn got sucked into the world of a serial impostor (and murderer), and what his failure to see through the most blatant of lies tells us about our character.   

The Undercover Economist Strikes Back: How to Run-or Ruin-an Economy by Tim Harford

This time around Harford turns his attentions to the world of macroeconomics.  Harford, himself an economist of the more micro persuasion, has a soft spot for Keynesian economics - and a clear eyed view on the damage that austerity politics can have on the economic lives of any citizens unfortunate enough to suffer under these wrong-headed policies.  

Harford’s intent is to teach us the fundamentals of macroeconomics, from GDP to debt - unemployment rates to trade balances, while having us think that we are merely enjoying a bunch of good stories.  The author’s method is to utilize the rhetorical device of turning us all into economic kingpins, with the power to decide how we want to tax, spend, save, and invest.   What would you do if you were given control over the economy?  The answers are perhaps less simple than one would think - and certainly more complex than our current political debates suggest.

Will economics professors ever assign The Undercover Economist Strikes Back: How to Run-or Ruin-an Economy to their intro to macroeconomics courses?  Probably not.  Which is too bad, as this fast and fun book would serve as a great primer for textbook reading and class discussions.

Unleashing the Second American Century: Four Forces for Economic Dominance by Joel Kurtzman

Kurtzman talks about four forces that will spur wealth creation and economic growth in the U.S. in the coming decades: a creative and risk taking workforce, experience in precision manufacturing, large reserves of capital, and new supplies of energy.  Of these forces, it is cheap and abundant natural gas that will undergird U.S. economic growth, as gaining energy independence will create new industries and ensure that resources stay closer to home.

Unleashing the Second American Century makes a strong case against declinist thinking about the U.S.’s economic future.  A quick look at the enormous profits and cash reserves of our largest companies should be evidence enough that the American system is very good at generating wealth.  Where Kurtzman is less convincing is in his claims that this wealth will generate good jobs for those outside a relatively narrow band of creative or technical professions.  We will certainly have many service jobs to cater to the needs of the most well-off, but few of us aspire to these jobs for ourselves or our children.

This is less a criticism of Kurtzman’s book than it may appear.  We should develop a clear-eyed view of how the U.S. economy is likely to change in the coming decades.  With more confidence about the larger macro-economic story we may be more willing to take risks and make big bets in higher education.

The Myth of America's Decline: Politics, Economics, and a Half Century of False Prophecies by Josef Joffe

Joffe’s The Myth of America’s Decline can be read as a companion book to Kurtzman’s Unleashing the Second American Century.  Joffe’s book is less about the future of the U.S., and more about the weaknesses of everywhere else.  China comes up for particular scrutiny, with Joffe taking great glee in pointing out the Middle Kingdom’s manifest political, demographic, and economic weaknesses.

I think that Joffe would be a big fan of Kurtzman’s book (and probably vice versa).  Joffe is particularly strong in point out a long history of declinist analysis (apparently things are always getting worse), while noticing just how wrong past predictions of future economic calamity have turned out.  HIs point is that claims that things are getting worse have mostly been offered in an attempt to advance a particular agenda or policy.

It would be great to focus Joffe’s and Kurtzman’s analytical lens on our world of higher ed.  How often do we hear about a constrained future, one where resources will lag further behind needs?   Is there room for an alternative narrative about the future of higher ed?

Big Bang Disruption: Strategy in the Age of Devastating Innovation by Larry Downes and Paul Nunes

What gadgets has your smart phone replaced?  Your PDA, your camera, your music player, your alarm clock, your GPS?  What else?  Legacy camera and film makers were too slow to deal with digital cameras.  But digital camera makers were too slow to deal with smart phones.   

Is your industry, is our industry, vulnerable to big bang disruption?

Is higher ed analogous to a legacy industry such as taxi cabs, waiting to be unbundled and re-assembled into an Uber like agglomeration?   Will we resort to legal maneuvering and political lobbying to forestall new services that will cost us incumbents but benefit our customers?

Big Bang Disruption makes a fun read because it is enjoyable to hear about whole industries being upended by new ideas and new practices.   We like to think that we will get out in front of technological change, and that we know how to strike the balance between maintaining our core business (the one that pays the bills) and finding ways to innovate.  If we are anything like the companies profiled in Big Bang Disruption we are more vulnerable than we think.

The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success by Megan McArdle

Every college president on the planet is telling us that we need to be willing to take more risks.  To be willing to fail, but fail fast.  Very few of us, I fear, have internalized this idea.

The reasons that I’m most likely too risk adverse have everything to do with the fact that come 2017 I”ll be paying two college tuition bills.  Oh, and the mortgage.

The gap between our desire to take risks and our play-it-safe reality is why books like McArdle’s The Upside of Down are so important.  McCardle, an engaging and open writer, reminds us that by playing it too safe we may actually be taking larger risks than we realize.  The Upside of Down is a mix of social psychology, organizational behavior, and career self-help.  Academic studies and business case histories are intermingled with McArdle’s own challenges to evolve from an MBA tech consultant to a full-time financial journalist.   

Influx by Daniel Suarez

It has been a pleasure to watch Daniel Suarez grow as a writer.  We all love the techno-thrillers that Suarez is known for.  It is terrific that Suarez is now combining his strong technical chops with character development and surefooted plotting.

Influx takes literally the Gibson quote that the future is already here - it’s just not evenly distributed.  In the Influx world, a shadowy government agency, (the BTC - or Bureau of Technology Control), controls and keeps for itself the world’s most advanced technologies.  If you think cold fusion is a fantasy you have not spent time at BTC headquarters.   This is a terrific setup for a terrific cyberthriller.   Enjoy.

The Professionals and Criminal Enterprise (Stevens and Windermere Novels) by Owen Laukkanen

Owen Laukkanen is a new discovery.  He writes thrillers about FBI agents, cops, kidnappers, and bank robbers.  The twist is that all the criminals start out as middle class folks who somehow lost their way (layoffs, downsizing, poor graduation job prospects etc.), and who find out that criminal life is a good deal more exciting than straight corporate jobs.   In Laukkanen’s world, the only stable employment is law enforcement, and everyone else must play on the other side of the criminal line if they wish to live their American dream.   

Laukkanen’s 3rd book in the Stevens and Windermere series , Kill Fee, has just been released - and I plan to keep downloading each new installment.

What have you been reading?

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Joshua Kim

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