Oct 20

Of the twenty books I read recently I would put this one in the top three as being a must-read. I have a bunch to say about this book but let me just hit the main points:

  • It provides a much-needed dose of optimism in the face of constant doom & gloom predictions about climate change, population explosion, terrorism, drought, food shortages, epidemics, nuclear proliferation, etc. It’s presented in a credible and evidence-supported way (exactly half the book is footnotes and references to other sources). And it gives a prescriptive path offering ideas for things we can do to positively affect outcomes.
  • The first part of the book addresses the cognitive biases that explain why each successive generation tends to believe that calamity is imminent. Two biases in particular (anchoring and loss aversion) lead folks to blind spots that stem from fear and inability to think beyond the current reality frame. A great example of this was the widespread fear in mid-1800’s that the town was doomed to drown in horse manure. Given the situation it was a rational conclusion but they couldn’t have foreseen the advent of the automobile and the fact they’d soon be concerned over polluted skies rather than polluted streets.
  • The mechanism for this unforeseen, quantum leap type progress is what Diamandis calls the “adjacent possibles” or “doors that immediately lead to more doors.”  This was one of my favorite paragraphs explaining this concept:

Twenty years ago, most well-off US citizens owned a camera, a video camera, a CD player, a stereo, a video game console, a cell phone, a watch, an alarm clock, a set of encyclopedias, a world atlas, a Thomas Guide and a whole bunch of other assets that easily add up to more than $10,000. All of which come standard on today’s smart phones, or are available for purchase at the app store for less than a cup of coffee. In this, our exponentially enabled world, that’s how quickly $10,000 worth of expenses can vanish. More importantly, these things can vanish without too much outside intervention. No one set out to zero the costs of two dozen products, inventors set out to make better cell phones, and the path of the adjacent possible did the rest.

  • The author gives his definitions of some fundamentals:
    • what is abundance? everyone maximizing talents
    • what is prosperity? saved time “true measure of something’s worth is the hours it takes to acquire it”
    • what is culture? ability to store, exchange and improve ideas
  • He then goes on to discuss the “Eight exponentials” which are the eight fields that they chose as curriculum for Singularity University:   biotech, computational systems, networks & sensors, AI, robotics, digital manufacturing, medicine, nanomaterials. He posits these fields uniquely have the capacity to compound the effects of the others and yield impossible leaps.
  • He maintains that the “abundance backbone” consists of four disciplines: literacy, basic math, life skills & critical thinking. These four fundamentals provide the essentials necessary for one to then use the internet to attain other. knowledge to make advancements. It made me think of the analogy of a computer BiOS for being able to call a bootloader and load the rest of the OS. As long as you have these core skills you can fetch everything else later. So the challenge becomes to deliver these core skills to more people who currently lack them, along with the means to get the rest from the internet.
  • He says that “creative ideas are the ultimate resource yet our current educational system does little to nourish this resource” and then quotes Sir Ken Robinson. I strongly recommend his TED talk on the subject of education. I’ve written at length on my ideas for how we could revamp education and agree that we need to fundamentally rethink the system from the ground up prioritizing creativity.
  • Apparently the author co-founded Singularity University with Ray Kurzweil. I saw Kurzweil’s “Transcendent Man” film last year and highly recommend it.
  • It’s core premise is that Artificial Intelligence + computing power + Moore’s Law means we’re approaching an inevitable shift where AI will soon blow past the human brain in performance capability. The author points out “whether the lightning fast search results of Google or the speech recognition of Siri like it or not we are already AI codependent today.”
  • Having  Jeff Hawkins’ book “On Intelligence” recently I found it interesting there’s no mention of the Numenta technology. To me that’s the most intriguing advancement for AI (essentially biomimicry of the human neocortex).
  • He cites the the “lab on a chip” innovation as an exciting synthesis of sensors, AI, and network which dematerializes the HIV test: What once required long doctor visits, a vial o flood, and days or weeks of anxious waiting now needs no visit, a single drop of blood, and a fifteen-minute read, all for under $1 using a microfluidic optical chip smaller than a credit card.” When combined with geo-awareness via GPS and machine learning it opens up the possibility to catch and contain epidemics at an earlier stage, which is especially relevant given the current frenzy around the Ebola scare.
  • There are four major motivators driving innovation: curiosity, fear, desire for wealth creation, desire for significance. In addition to founding Singularity University the author is also creator of the X Prize which leverages all four of these motivators.
  • He makes the case that incentive prizes do a couple useful things, namely: 1) raise visibility of big challenges and 2) pave the way by creating a public mindset that the challenge is in fact solvable. Also 3) in areas where market failures or entrenched incumbents have thwarted progress, prizes like the X Prize can serve to break up otherwise impassable bottlenecks.
  • The irony of this is that a fellow company at the last incubator where we were a tenant, Paraslice, had solved the genome sequencing X Prize just before the prize was revoked and the contest canceled.

In all, I found this book hugely encouraging and thought provoking. We are deluged with such negative and substance-less information daily, it was so refreshing to get a glimpse of an optimistic (yet realistic) potential future. For more info see the author’s blog or .

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Oct 08

As I mentioned in the last post, I’ve been reading a ton lately. I’m going to do a brain dump series of posts on various random observations and thoughts from the last twenty books I’ve read.  There will be some random meta digressions but all of it with the intent to share the most useful things I’ve learned lately.  I figure it’s best to do this as a series of posts (otherwise this will devolve into a 10,000 word monster post that nobody will read). So here’s the full list and I’ll start tonight with thoughts on the first one:

    1. A Guide to the Good Life

      A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy was my first exposure to the stoic philosophy and came as a recommendation from my friend Bryan Kirch. It provides a solid overview of this philosophy. Rather than taking an academic/theoretical approach it places an emphasis on actionable, practical advice for putting the concepts into practice in one’s life.  Random thoughts that struck me while reading it:

      • “Negative visualization” is the antithesis of the technique of “positive affirmation” espoused by life coaches and books like “The Secret.” The idea is that you essentially immunize yourself against habituating the positive things in your life and taking them for granted. Internalizing the reality that one day you will lose everything makes you more acutely aware and appreciative of what you have today. “Hedonic adaptation” is the term for never being satisfied as you gain more and more luxuries. Negative visualization is the antidote to Hedonic Adaptation.  Instead of thinking positive you basically imagine the worst possible scenarios happening. I’ve dabbled with this since and while I can’t speak to the effectiveness of the “hedonic immunity,” one byproduct has been that it snaps you into the moment and makes you more mindful.
      • On tranquility as the ultimate goal: I have a fundamental issue with the belief that the ultimate goal is to dampen the high’s and low’s of life. I picture a sine wave of up’s and down’s in life’s roller coaster journey and the author seems to be advocating reducing the amplitude of one’s sine wave as the primary goal.  I just don’t agree with that. I actually believe experiencing the full breadth of human emotion to widest possible extent is arguably a better goal.  “‘Tis better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all…” Maybe I’m misinterpreting things but the author’s advice of seeking tranquility seems to run directly counter to a core value I believe.
      • Not surprisingly I also disagree with the notion of embracing a fatalistic view that life is pre-determined and one lacks the ability to affect the outcome. I suppose if tranquility were the ultimate goal having a fatalistic belief system would help the practitioner abdicate a lot of responsibility and feel more at peace, but given that I feel the fundamental premise upon which the fatalistic recommendation is based is faulty, I don’t agree with the recommendation.
      • I do dig the idea of having a codified life philosophy that serves as a filter through which every decision becomes obvious. In the same way that having business process documentation or automation helps reduce cognitive load and uncertainty around decision making for workers, I get the value of having a well-defined life philosophy like stoicism.  There are some useful components but (at least for me personally) trying to adhere to orthodox stoicism would be as futile as my attempt to strictly adhere to David Allen’s GTD todo philosophy. In the end I’ve pulled bits and pieces of his task management framework and developed my own system that works for me. I believe the same is probably true with stoicism- that the optimal framework will be person-specific and folks will be best served gaining exposure to many different philosophies and then making their own Mr. Potatohead philosophy of the components that best serve them.
      •   The Obstacle is the Way: <- I read this book subsequently as another recommendation from Bryan and while Ryan Holiday is a great author and speaker (he narrated the audio version of his book) I didn’t have nearly the number of epiphanies or insights with his book. It’s probably useful to reinforce the stoic ideas but if you were going to read one or the other, definitely read the Good Life.
    2. Abundance

    3. Turn the Ship Around

    4. The Divergent Trilogy

    5. Zero to One

    6. On Intelligence

    7. Shantaram

    8. Art of Racing in the Rain

    9. Ghost in the Wires

    10. Patriots & TEOTWAWKI

    11. Power Questions

    12. Snowcrash

    13. Thinking Strategically

    14. Lean Startup

    15. Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman

    16. Diving Bell & The Butterfly

    17. Thinking in Systems

    18. Pitch Anything

    19. The Power of Now

    20. Start With Why

^ Here’s the book list. I’ll post thoughts on each of these in the coming weeks and use this as an excuse to get in a rhythm of writing again.

On a sidenote: if you read on a kindle device, they now have it so the audiobook typically syncs with the text. This means you can be reading on your laptop, hop in your car with your iPhone and have it continue reading to you from where you left off. Then when you get to the store and are standing in line, you open your phone and the kindle phone reader now picks up where the audio left off. It’s this pervasive reading experience where you’re able to keep plowing through books and not get in a reading rut. They call it WhisperSync for Voice and it’s enabled on many kindle books – super useful.

Up next: a fantastic book I read recently called Abundance with a refreshing positive prognosis for our future amidst all the doom & gloom predictions of climate change, pollution, epidemics, natural resource depletions, species extinctions, etc.

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