Book Review: Alibaba – The House that Jack Ma Built

You probably already know that I've been learning Mandarin for about 8 years now, and have a fascination with Chinese business and technology. Learning the language has made this more approachable for me.  The story of Jack Ma and Alibaba is one of the really interesting aspects of Chinese business today, so I was intrigued to read this book:

Alibaba: The House that Jack Ma Built by Duncan Hall

I ended up listening to the book via Audible rather than reading it.

Duncan Hall seems well placed to comment on this business. He was an early advisor to Jack Ma. He hasn't worked directly for Jack but he has obviously been close enough to watch the company closely.

The book is well written and explores much of Jack's younger days and shows a lot of detail about where his thinking is likely to have come from. I was particularly fascinated by his deep connections to Australia. I wasn't aware that he'd lived in Newcastle (New South Wales) for many months.

Duncan said he'd been living in China since the 1990's and this has given me great insights into the cultural issues that have helped Alibaba to flourish.

Given how long he's lived in China, I'm sure Duncan has a great grasp of the language by now. I really wish he had narrated the book himself.  Jim Meskimen is the book's narrator and while Jim has a great clear voice for narration, I struggled with the constant mangling of the Chinese words that were in the book.

For example, the word Xiao in the company name Xiao Mi is pronounced like the "Show" part of "Shower", not like something starting with "Zh". And it took me a while to realize when he said something that sounded like "Nerr Peng You" that he meant "girlfriend", which is pronounced more like the English "New Pung Yo".

Bottom line?

This book is quite fascinating and if you aren't already familiar with Alibaba and Jack Ma, I highly commend it to you. While things could always change, it's hard to describe how important they are likely to be in the new world order. If you don't know about them now, I'm sure you will in the future.

Greg's rating: 9 out of 10

Book Review: Any Ordinary Day by Leigh Sales

Leigh Sales is a well-respected local journalist. I feel some affinity for her, as she's grown up in Queensland and often comments on things from her childhood that I clearly remember, even though Leigh is younger than me. I was fascinated to read her book Any Ordinary Day: Blindsides, Resilience and What Happens After the Worst Day of Your Life.

I decided to read her book before I knew anything about it at all. I knew it was "Any Ordinary Day". I hadn't realized it was "Blindsides, Resilience and What Happens After the Worst Day of Your Life", so it was quite an unexpected story for me.

You often (perhaps too often) hear about tragedies, terrorism outcomes, and disasters and about the people affected. What you don't usually hear much about, is what happens after the events.

In the book, Leigh talks about the aftermath of these events. She starts with a discussion about the Lindt Cafe Seige in Sydney and then moves through many stories about what's happened to people on the worst days of their lives, and what happens after.

I really appreciated the detail that Leigh went to in investigating the content for this book. She had really insightful interviews, not only with the survivors but also wonderful interviews with coroners, police, politicians, forensic counsellors, etc.

Leigh really peels back details that usually just aren't discussed, and I found it really quite compelling.

Bottom line?

This book is quite fascinating and takes you into discussions and details that I've never seen in other books. Hopefully, you won't be one of the people who have a similar story, but I suspect you'd be better prepared (if that's possible) by reading this book. At the very least, you might know more about how to work with or relate to people who are in these situations.

Greg's rating: 9 out of 10

Book Review: The Hard Thing About Hard Things

I recently read The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers by Ben Horowitz. I was interested to read it because Ben is a well-known and experienced entrepreneur, based in the Silicon Valley area south of San Francisco. He offers advice on how to really run startups.

I loved the way that Horowitz addressed failure. Instead of taking the business school approach of telling you how things should be done, and assuming that you'll do everything correctly, he spends time telling you what to do after you've already screwed up.

I thought the advice that he delivers is quite realistic, and more importantly, helpful. It was interesting to see him asking you to embrace the struggle.

Many CEOs that I talk to feel like they're the only ones who must be struggling, and they often feel quite alone. Horowitz makes it very clear how much everyone in these roles struggles, and then provides ideas on what to do when you're in lousy situations.

Overall, I found this refreshing, and honest.

Bottom line?

This book is interesting and is certainly worth your time if you're looking to run a startup, or if you are already struggling to do so.

Greg's rating: 8 out of 10

Book Review: The Little Things: Why You Really Should Sweat the Small Stuff

The title of this book caught my eye. I'm sure it's intended to be a play on the title of  Don't Sweat the Small Stuff and it's all small stuff: Simple Ways to Keep the Little Things From Taking Over Your Life by Richard Carlson. I reviewed that book here.

So this one is The Little Things: Why You Really Should Sweat the Small Stuff by Andy Andrews.

Andrews tends to write small (and short) books that get pretty much to the point. This one also does the same. I saw a large number of people taking about how much they enjoyed it, but for me, it fell flat. In Carlson's book, there were great messages about how easy it is to have your life overcrowded, particularly with things that in the end really don't matter.

Andrews takes the opposite view that so many of these little things really are critical. He spends ages talking about how an air rifle played a key part in the Lewis and Clark Expedition, and how a handful of nails was critical in the Battle of Waterloo.

We've all seen situations where significant things fall apart for the lack of attention to small detail. And Andrews clearly shows examples of this.

It's a pretty quick read, and at least he doesn't belabour the points.

I just ended up feeling pretty unconvinced, but noting other reviews, I seem to be in the minority. I just didn't find any real revelations here.

Greg's rating: 6 out of 10


Book Review: No Ordinary Disruption

I mentioned in a previous post about how one of my colleagues Orin Thomas is a prolific reader and every time I talk to him, he suggests more books that I should read. Another one in that category was No Ordinary Disruption One by Richard Dobbs, James Manyika, and Jonathan Woetzel. The sub-title is The four forces breaking all the trends.

The authors claim that our intuition on how the world works could be very wrong. I suspect that the degree of change in the accuracy of our perception is a recent, and accelerating thing. In the book, they are summarizing years of research they have done at the McKinsey Global Institute.

It's amazing today how many businesses that have been large, solid, and around for a long time, are suddenly almost swept aside by relatively new competitors. Suddenly, the world feels different. It is going to be very, very different.

What I particularly like in this book is the way that they've analyzed what's going on in China. The rise and rise of Chinese technology is a passionate interest of mine, and I'm surprised how little attention it's getting in the West today. I think we ignore it at our extreme peril, particularly financially. So many things that I see going on in China are so very disruptive. I hear people scoff at some of the quality of what they're doing, but I heard exactly the same thing about Japanese products in the 1960's and 1970's. By the 1980's, everyone was taking notice of the Japanese.

If you don't realize that technologies that are now constructing skyscrapers at three stories per day (yes 57 stories in 19 days), and others that are 3D printing entire houses, are going to be here in the near future, you aren't watching what's going on.

What we in the West aren't seeing is where the real growth is going to come from in the future. An example they give is that a single regional city in China (Tianjin) will have a GDP as large as Sweden by 2025.

I loved the way that the authors note that cities that most executives would be hard pressed to even find on a map today, will have most of the economic growth in the next decade.

The four main trends that they've mentioned are a big shift away from North Atlantic trade, across to emerging markets; the way the world is aging; the effects of ongoing urbanization; and obviously, the impacts of technological change.

But it's not all about China and emerging markets. There are other significant disruptions taking place. For example, who, in the 1980's, would have tipped the USA as the world's largest oil producer, rather than some countries in the Middle East or Russia?

The first chapter contains the essence of the book. It's a fairly straightforward read, and covers the main points of the whole book. The rest of the book is a much heavier read, with all the statistics and analytics, but interesting nonetheless.

My main concern right now, is that the upcoming disruption is very different to anything we've seen in the past, and we're nowhere near ready for it.

Bottom line?

This book is interesting and it's another one that I'm glad Orin suggested to me. I have a deep interest in these things, and this was yet another set of opinions that were worth considering.

Greg's rating: 8 out of 10

Book Review: Shrill (Notes from a loud woman)

I've also tackled a number of non-technical and non-scientific books recently. On that I'd heard good things about was Shrill (Notes from a loud woman) by Lindy West.

First note about this book is that it's full of NSFW (not suitable for work) words, so be warned if that would offend you.

As well as being loud, Lindy has spent her life being big. I'd say that's shaped her world view as much as anything else. Having been big much of my own life, I can directly relate to so many things she says.

Weight is one of the last great "acceptable" forms of discrimination in the world today. That's largely because when doctors and others haven't been able to cure it, they have to blame someone, so they blame the victim, and presume they must have just eaten too much, not exercised enough, or just don't have any willpower. Yet of my many friends, the heavy people that I are often the ones with the strongest willpower, and often excelling at every aspect of their lives except weight. One day, society will come to understand that obesity is an illness, and I think largely caused by excess carbohydrates, even though that's exactly what stupid guidelines have told us to eat over the years. But I digress.

Lindy had me almost crying at times, yet laughing so hard at other times. An NPR review called her "our fat, ferocious, and funny avenging angel". I'd put that as pretty close to the mark.

She's dealt with appalling situations and managed to still come back out with a sense of humor. It's surprising that she still has  decency towards those around her.

Bottom line?

I liked it. She's brash and loud, willing to challenge stereotypes, and tackle nonsense head-on.

Greg's rating: 8 out of 10

Book Review: The Selfish Gene (40th Anniversary Edition)

Another classic book that I've gone through again lately is The Selfish Gene  by Richard Dawkins. I listened to the 40th Anniversary Edition on Audible as he was narrating it himself, and I particularly wanted to listen to the 40th Anniversary Edition to see how his own thoughts had changed over time.

Dawkins can be a polarizing figure. I'm mindful of how his work would have been received at the time it was written. I understand many of the comments that people make on him, but I find the vast majority are either misunderstanding him (you need to take him very literally but I find people read into his words, things that he's not actually saying), or are feeling like their deep-held beliefs are being severely challenged. I have no doubt that the latter hurts.

It's hard to believe that this was written 40 years ago, as the ideas are still fairly fresh and interesting to listen to. I liked the way that, instead of fixing his earlier ideas on the fly, he read the book as it was originally written, then inserted final paragraphs after each chapter if necessary to show where he'd updated his thinking or where he now thinks he was wrong. Being prepared to do so, is one sign of a true scientist. Many others would have just updated the content to current thinking.

One the whole though, I think he's done a great service to humanity, in helping us break out of medieval thinking.

This book explains his thoughts on many aspects of evolutionary biology. He dives into genes as persistent units of information, and the bodies that they inhabit, are basically vehicles chosen for their ability to aid in the replication of the genes.

One thing that I didn't particularly like is that in a number of places, he really belabors the points being made. I presume that more modern eyes don't need the reinforcement that readers 40 years ago would have needed. I also find that the analogies start to break down the further they are stretched.

The cover said "The most inspiring science book of all time". That would be a big call, and I can think of others that should have that moniker instead.

Bottom line?

This book is interesting and I understand that many would find the concepts challenging to their world views. It must have been ever so challenging at the time the book was written.

Greg's rating: 8 out of 10

Book Review: The Second Machine Age

One of my colleagues Orin Thomas is a prolific writer. I've lost count of how many detailed books he's written, and I've no doubt he's lost count as well. If you've worked in Microsoft-related IT for any length of time, I'm sure you'll have read one of his books, particularly if you've been involved in certification. You can see a partial list of his books here.

But the other thing that amazes me about Orin is that he's also a prolific reader. I can't believe how many books he gets through, and he's inspired me to get through way more. I have not the slightest doubt that being a good reader is a prerequisite for being a good writer. Every time I meet with Orin, he mentions books that I should read. I note them down, and slowly make my way through many of them.

Based on my interest in where I think society is heading, one of the books that Orin suggested was The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies by Erik Brynjolfsson (Author), Andrew McAfee.

I grew up in an age where I wasn't worried at all about the future job market, and in the future of work itself. But the work and study that I've been doing in recent years has changed that. I really do see a period of major social disruption coming. I think if you're not seeing that, you're not really looking.

Whenever we've had disruption in the past, the scale has been much, much lower. "We don't have massive pools of unemployed scribes" is a comment that I often hear. But the disruption that I see coming is very different to what we've had in the past. Today, in my country, there is a major upset if a couple of hundred people lose their jobs at a car plant, even though that was entirely predictable since about 1992 when the government set the industry on a new direction.

In the future though, I can see single decisions sidelining a million people at a time. We're just not ready for that.

This book is an excellent source of material for you to consider. It goes through economic data and positions where technology is and where it's taking us. It argues that we're in the middle of a second era of staggering innovation, and that it will affect us even more than the first machine age did.

After convincing us of how amazing all the technology is, the authors then discuss how the increased prosperity is only shared by a small percentage of the population. I'd argue that it's heading towards a minute percentage. The prosperity won't be spread across the community, and particularly not to the people at the lower economic levels.

Bottom line?

This book is interesting and challenging and I'm glad Orin suggested it to me. I have a deep interest in these things, and this just helped add to that.

Greg's rating: 8 out of 10

Book Review: Will It Fly? by Pat Flynn

I'm a fan of Pat Flynn. If you haven't listened to his Smart Passive Income podcast, and you have any interest in being self-sufficient without "working for the man", Pat's podcast would be a good start. Pat has people ask him about ideas though and he's put his ideas on how to work out if an idea is worth pursuing in his book: Will It Fly? How to Test Your Next Business Idea So You Don't Waste Your Time and Money.

People often have what they think are great ideas but they don't know if they really are good ideas or not. The lousy situation is where they then invest a great deal of money building/creating something, only to watch it fail miserably in the market.

Pat's book is designed to help to avoid that.

Pat is a thought leader in this part of the market. And he's done very, very well from his work. Ironically, it all started because he lost his "real" job. In this book, he helps you through the steps of what to do before launching (or particularly before investing heavily) in your business idea.

Entrepreneurship is hard, but it can also be very rewarding. That's a scary concept for many. So often, people live from pay to pay, or have such heavy commitments, that they feel they really have few options.

I can't say that I miss doing a "normal" job and I can't imagine ever wanting to do one again, no matter what happens. I wish this book had been available decades ago. It would have saved me a lot of time and effort along the way.

Bottom line?

This book won't help you decide if you should be an entrepreneur. But if you've decided to do so, this book is great material for anyone looking to start a business, launch a product, or even change tack in their current business.

Greg's rating: 9 out of 10

Book Review: The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice

When I was growing up, we were endlessly shown Mother Teresa (now known as Saint Teresa of Calcutta by Catholics) as an example of a person who had devoted their life to the service of others, and did so in appalling situations. I knew that the myth surrounding this woman was very different to the reality and I'm surprised that I hadn't previously read Christopher Hitchen's book: Book Review: The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice.

An excerpt from the first two reviews on Amazon sum up this book pretty well:

sterlingAg said: "You don't have to either love or hate Mother Theresa to enjoy this book, although it may be a tough read for the former. I've always believed that Christopher Hitchens' goal is not to bring your thinking in line with his; rather, it is to provoke your thought, your investigation and, maybe later, your evaluation. He does this masterfully here."


Jay Young said: "About 10 years ago, I hated Christopher Hitchens, particularly for his attacks on Mother Teresa. Of course, I was uncritically relying on Bill Donahue's Catholic League for my views on the subject. I was convinced that Hitchens was launching a malicious, hateful attack on a woman who did more good than he ever did. As you may have guessed, my views have changed since then. …  Hitchens, however, definitely has assembled an incisive case against the idolization of Mother Teresa. The evidence is hard to argue against, and Hitchens only asks that her reputation by judged by her actions, not the other way around."

To say that this would be a tough read for fans of Mother Teresa (or at least of the myth of Mother Teresa) is an understatement.

Hitchens provides a very sharp and strongly argued position for his opinions. She has been held in high regard for very questionable reasons, and with amazingly little positive evidence, and an unbelievable amount of (peculiarly discounted) negative evidence.

The details he provides of her financial dealings, and the depth of her relationships and engagements with very questionable people is beyond compelling and eye-opening.

Hitchens' book is a staggering indictment of the mythology that surrounds Mother Teresa. This is made more compelling by the time he spent with her, and his interviews with her. Remarks like the following provide a hint on her thinking:

"She assured me, that she wasn't working to alleviate poverty. She was working to expand the number of Catholics. She said: 'I'm not a social worker.'"

Bottom line: Hitchens will have raised the ire of many with this book, but no matter what your initial impressions or beliefs in her are, if you haven't read it, I suspect you aren't well-informed on the topic. Read it before you form an opinion of the book. Don't just believe the positive spin.

Greg's rating: 9 out of 10