The Art of the Idea

The Art of the Idea by John HuntAnd how it can change your life
by John Hunt
ISBN: 9781576875162

This book is a quirky and pleasant object: it features sort of cardboardy covers, an interestingly flat/matte feel to the illustrations, and inviting, expansive margins with the text. Handling it, I saw that Seth Godin, Tom Peters, and the Nelson Mandela Foundation blurbed it. Okay, that got my attention. Not that I give tremendous weight to blurbs, but I do pay attention when they are by people I like, or they are an unexpected mix.

In this book, John Hunt (Worldwide Creative Director at the advertising agency TBWA) offers seventeen observations, and artist Sam Nhlengethwa illustrates them. The feel is provisional, collaged, open instead of fixed, and the intention is to provoke thought to lead to forward motion.

You may not expect to hear things like this from an advertising guy, but:

If something is fundamentally bad or wrong, it’s pointless trying to embroider it with good ideas. If the premise is false, no amount of great thinking is going to change that. Yet time and time again, ideas are asked to fight lost causes.

It would be pretty easy to soundbite this book (“no one orders a bouquet of beige flowers”, “logic is kryptonite”) and make is sound like something fluffy and easy to snarkily pick apart, but that isn’t the point. The point is to provoke yourself, and hopefully those around you, to more open thinking, to engage with ideas and change things as a result.

Original thinking needs a longer leash. Continuously taking your mind for a walk to exactly the same place doesn’t really exercise it. You can’t connect different things together if what you’re seeing is always the same. It’s because you know the narrow confines of your particular space that you have to venture further afield. The gap between what you already know and what you’re exploring is often where the best ideas pop up.

Recommended if: the bozos are getting you down, if you want a source of inspiration close at hand, if physical books about creativity make you happy.

The Checklist Manifesto

The Checklist Manifesto by Atul GawandeHow to Get Things Right
by Atul Gawande
ISBN: 9780312430009

This book is far more interesting than one might think, given the title. (Unless productivity porn is your thing, in which case it is that interesting but not what you’d expect.) I believe it started off life as an article in The New Yorker (“The Checklist”), and in an all too rare turn of events deserved to grow to full book length.

Gawande’s insight is as simple as it is radical: checklists, when well-designed, can make experts dramatically better at what they do. In operating rooms, using checklists can save lives. In building enormously complex structures, they can prevent serious problems and correct issues before they are more expensive to fix. Checklists made is possible to fly the B-17 bomber, and help make commercial air travel safe. The power of checklists isn’t limited to risk reduction, either: checklists can be used to successfully promote communication and working as a team. If this sounds in the least bit dry, it’s because I’m not doing Gawande’s writing justice — he has a knack for telling stories.

The real mystery is: why aren’t aren’t checklists more widely deployed? Experts resist them, because they fall into the trap of thinking they know better — rather then seeing the checklist as a tool to let them act more effectively to leverage their skills and insight. And checklists aren’t revenue-generating the way a blockbuster medication or medical device can be — though they can be responsible for enormous cost savings. Creating checklists and refining them can be a thought- and labor-intensive process, and it requires behavior change, something most of us are not as good at or willing to do as we might believe ourselves to be.

After reading this book, 1) I was grateful for aviation checklists, as I am a nervous flyer, 2) determined to ask about the use of checklists in the operating room if anyone in my family needs surgery, and 3) curious to see if I can implement checklists in my work environment.

Grace (Eventually)

Grace (Eventually) by Anne LamottThoughts on Faith
by Anne Lamott
ISBN: 9781594489426

I really like Lamott’s nonfiction. (This isn’t a dig at her fiction; I haven’t read any of her novels.) I’ve read Operation Instructions, Traveling Mercies, Plan B, and possibly the most well-known, Bird by Bird. This book is the same vein as Traveling and Plan B, so if you liked those, you will probably also like this.

Lamott is still pissed off over politics, still striving to do the right thing when what she is tempted to do is get even, still sharing the struggle of raising her son who is now a teenager. The kind of laughter generated by her writing is the kind of laughing you often hear in twelve step meetings: a recognition of the crazy and how, really, once you calm down, so much of that shit is optional.

Recommended if you have a sense of humor even about important topics, a broad-minded spirituality, and an outright affection for mouthy women who say what they think. If you don’t have all these things, this book will probably make you angry, so why bother?

Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work!

Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work! by Douglas Couplandby Douglas Coupland
ISBN: 9781935633167

I wanted to read this book because I thought Coupland (Generation X, Microserfs) would be the perfect person to channel McLuhan. Turns out he probably is, but that isn’t as entertaining or enlightening as I thought it would be.

Not that this is a bad book, it isn’t. Because Coupland is Coupland, this isn’t a straightforward biography. He imagines his way into McLuhan’s life and work, makes conjectures based on psychology, neuroscience, and a shared Canadian sense of space. He sprinkles zippy aphoristic McLuhan quotes throughout, such as:

A point of view can be a dangerous luxury when substituted for insight and understanding.

Art is anything you can get away with.

Innumerable confusions and a feeling of profound despair invariably emerge in periods of great technological and cultural transitions.

We shape our tools, and afterwards our tools shape us.

It’s a service, really, pulling out these bits from McLuhan’s text, as apparently he is mostly unreadable. In other words, McLuhan’s writing is dense, obtuse, and seemingly unconcerned with clear narrative: it’s the sort of thing that academics and lawyers specialize in. In a footnote, Coupland concedes that “there exists little self-apprehended grasp of the man’s thinking” and compares reading him to visiting Antarctica, as you “have to have time, patience, endurance, means, and stubbornness to do so”.

This caused me to reflect on my time in graduate school theory seminars where discussion was frequently fueled by bullshit: it must be profound because I don’t really understand it, and I can’t admit I don’t understand it so I’ll insist on its profundity. My personal belief that you aren’t being revolutionary if only ten people sitting around a seminar table can understand you was not so popular in the English department. I probably would have been entertained at the first of McLuhan’s lectures, and hated the rest.

Wired lists McLuhan as a patron saint; his ground-breaking media theorizing is often — incorrectly — conflated with support of new technologies. He was intellectually ambitious, quite conservative, and it is possible that brain damage from strokes explains more about some of his later behavior and work than any textual analysis could.

If you think you should read McLuhan and haven’t, you are probably the intended audience for this book. If you’ve read him and wondered what the giant fuss is, perhaps this will provide context that gives meaning to the fuss. That McLuhan was creating a theory of media was new and different and important at one point, even if what he was doing wasn’t always obvious or understandable.


Marie & Pierre Curie A Tale of Love & Fallout
ISBN: 9780061351327

This book is wonderfully designed as an object and a story. I can image the confusion in a bookstore or library as to where to place it in the collection: science? biography? art? with the graphic novels (that hodgepodge section encompassing everything drawn from comic strips to Maus)? A solid argument could be made for all of the above. One of the things I appreciated about it is that it embraces the concept of book as physical artifact — parts of the non-dust-jacketed cover even glow in the dark — and makes you think about the value in that. It would be a lesser thing, a Kindle version.

The book reveals the stories of Marie and Pierre Curie and their work in discovering radioactive elements. If that doesn’t sound interesting, it is because you don’t know enough about it. I’ll confess, I didn’t before reading this book. But as the back cover puts it: sabotage! temptation! duels! mystery! revelation! In this case, those are all true stories. The book is about the scientific discovery of radioactivity, yes, and it is also about love, consequences, and the risks involved in the zealous pursuit of people and ideas.

The art (all created by Redniss) matches the story and is literally part of the text as she designed the type used as well. Most of the images are cyanotypes, which have a beautiful blue glow about them. The images aren’t collage, but reminiscent of them and that works well, particularly as Redniss weaves in other stories (the Manhattan project, Chernobyl maps, nuclear bomb testing). She even writes about Three Mile Island, and ties that back to Pierre’s death, seeing both as normal accidents — the kind of event marked not so much by one catastrophic mistake, but a series of interwoven events leading to disaster.

Redniss has created a fascinating object, a vehicle for an extraordinary story. I hope she creates more books, and that more creative people get their hands on this one, and that it helps them rethink the wonder you can design into old fashioned paper pages. Highly recommended.

Dharma Road

by Brian Haycock
ISBN: 9781571746351

This book is a low-key introduction to basic Buddhist concepts. It’s not a primer, but a personal story of coming to practice Buddhist principles in daily life. It’s low on theory, textual references, and explicit instruction instead providing a slice of daily life view.

There’s a lot about driving a cab around Austin, Texas as that is what Haycock’s daily life consists of, and it’s a job that goes well past 9 to 5. Having recently visited Austin prior to reading the book, recognizing some of the places added to my enjoyment of the book. I don’t have a driver’s license, but I imagine drivers will identify more with the problems he describes that could, in less skillful hands, consistently lead to road rage.

You get the impression that Haycock used to be not such a great guy, dabbling too much in things that weren’t so savory or good for him, but he doesn’t go into much detail. It felt a bit like he couldn’t decide how confessional (vs objective) he wanted to be.

Because this book is written by a lay person, its a different view of Buddhist practice than in usually presented in book form. It’s an at times interesting look at how someone else, a “real person” does it.

The Mesh

Why the Future of Business is Sharing
Lisa Gansky
ISBN: 9781591843719

I received this book in the mail, apparently as a result of being on one of Seth Godin’s Linchpin lists.

The concept Gansky explains is in the book is important — she’s talking about seizing the opportunity to do things in new ways that improve on old ways of doing things because they are cheaper and/or more environmentally conscious and/or about generating revenue by adding value to the economy and communities, not extracting it. She offers example after example of socially connected, smart, being built from the ground up businesses.

If you want to learn about how entrepreneurs are taking advantage of pervasive web connectivity, social media, and mobile devices to grow businesses, you should read The Mesh. Gansky presents a compelling vision and believable evidence that it is not just a trend to watch out for in the future, but is something that works today. (Zipcar, anyone?)

Mesh businesses are … using what we’ve collectively learned about what works in a Web business for digital products and applying it to the sharing of physical products. This is the next phase. The mobile Web helps users locate a product to share, or people to share with. In most cases, a person actually has to get up from her chair to participate — it’s a physical experience, not just a virtual one. By linking the Web, mobile technology, and physical venues and products, the relevant offers can be locatted in a specific place and time. Just as someone uses the OpenTable app to make a last-minute restaurant reservtion on a mobile phone, he can make a date with a bike, tool, or car.

The last third of the book is filled with reference materials: a directory of Mesh businesses and references. Even though I am a dead-tree book person, I can see how these reference materials are much better suited to an online format. Seeing URLs in books, while good in the sense that they are providing links, is annoying in that they are tedious to read and type in. Fortunately Gansky has also put the directory on the web, where it can grow, instead of remaining static.

I’d recommend taking a look at the website, and then deciding if you need the dead tree version. One thing it did make me think of that a physical book, particularly a hardcover, is still often considered the most credible way to distribute important ideas — whether or not it is the best format.

Cognitive Surplus

Creativity and generosity in a connected age
by Clay Shirky
ISBN: 9781594202537

With the time we (collectively) spend watching television, we could build more Wikipedias than the world needs.

Yes, really. We’ve got the time — even if we think we don’t, most of us actually do — and these days, nearly everyone has access to a sufficient level of technology to build stuff, not just consume stuff. Most importantly, we have have the ability to build networked stuff, to build networks, to leverage crowds to do something besides sit on the couch and watch tv. The free time of educated folks is a “general social asset” and if we (just in the U.S.) didn’t collectively spend it watching 200 billion hours of television, we could really do something. If we directed just a fraction of it differently, we could have another Wikipedia (a mere 100 million hours of effort) or come up with new, wonderful things.

Not that watching television has to be a solitary, disconnected pursuit anymore. Have you ever watched an episode of Glee with twitter streaming commentary? Shirky uses the example of lolcats as the “stupidest possible creative act” but that might actually go to the #gleek peeps on twitter. In any case, Shirky’s real point is in participating, by creating something instead of just passively consuming, there is the potential spark for great collective works.

We create one another’s opportunities, whether for passivity or for activity, and we have always done so. The difference today is that the internet is an opportunity machine, a way for small groups to create new opportunities, at lower cost and with less hassle than ever before, and to advertise those opportunities to the largest set of potential participants in history

I don’t think he’s wrong; he’s pointing out the possible, not necessarily the probable.

I highly recommended this book if you are looking for a richer, deeper take on user contribution; if you think we’re all going to hell in a handbasket and no one has time to do anything about it; or if you want to be provoked into thinking more about the possibilities for networked creating and building. (If you are pressed for time, you can check out the transcript of Shirky’s Gin, Television, and Social Surplus talk.)

Shirky raises more questions than he answers in this book. I think that is a good thing: we have to time to work on the answers, together.

The single greatest predictor of how much value we get out of our cognitive surplus is how much we allow and encourage one another to experiment, because the only group that can try everything is everybody.

Where Good Ideas Come From

The natural history of innovation
by Steven Berlin Johnson
ISBN: 9781594487712

It’s fun to watch Johnson’s brain work; that is at least half the pleasure in reading his books. Whether he’s writing about slime mold or television he asks great questions, doesn’t stop looking when he has an obvious answer, and makes unexpected connections. He can also write, and comes up with memorable phrases and descriptions (In a discussion of hydrogen bonds, water “is a fiendishly talented dissolver of things.”)

In his sixth book, Johnson’s big idea is ideas, and where they come from. He’s interested in innovation — useful new ideas — and what sort of environments encourage innovation. His argument boils down to that there are certain properties found “in unusually fertile environments” and he has identified seven patterns important to successful innovation spaces. He was able to identify these patterns by shifting his perspective and developing a framework he calls the “long zoom”. His insight was that in looking at innovation from multiple scales, patterns that would otherwise be obscured become visible, and that this approach doesn’t just yield new metaphors to help our understanding, but gives that it “gives us new facts”:

But when you look at innovation from the long-zoom perspective, competition turns out to be less central to the history of good ideas than we generally think. Analyzing innovation on the scale of indivuals and organizations — ad the standard textbooks do — distorts our view. It creates a picture of innovation that overstates the role of proprietary research and “survival of the fittest” competition. The long-zoom approach lets us see that openness and connectivity may, in the end, be more valuable to innovation than purely competitive mechanisms.

Using examples from Gutenberg to Darwin to the inventor of air conditioning and the web, Johnson explains and explores the importance of these patterns and how they allow ideas (which are, literally speaking, networks) to flourish.

The adjacent possible
Coined by theoretical biologist Stuart Kauffman, this phrase describes the first-order combinations you can come up with based on what you have. The ingredients for certain molecular reactions were in primordial soup, but you couldn’t go right to blue whale from those ingredients. The thing is, the adjacent possible expands as you explore. The adjacent possible is how you can create an incubator for the third world that runs on spare car parts — you take the materials available (car parts and mechanic’s skillset) and combine them in new ways to create a medical device that saves lives.

Liquid Networks
Ideas are networks: in your brain, a new idea is a set of neurons firing in your brain in sync for the first time. In other words ideas aren’t isolated things, as Johnson points out, they are more like a swarm. There’s movement, the possibility of making new connections — a nearly literal liquid network, in the case of your brain. The primordial soup from which life on earth emerged was a liquid network; so is MIT’s building 99 with its reconfigurable walls designed for information spillover.

The slow hunch
We tend to think of a flash of insight leading to new discoveries, but often innovations emerge when an idea that has been kicked around for years is combined with other ideas. Hunches need space and time to evolve; if Tim Berners-Lee didn’t work for an employer that made it possible to tinker with ideas and nurse hunches, we might not have the web.

Ideas need to be able to bump into each other; this is how we make new connections that spark. I love that Johnson refutes the wrong-headed notion that the web is killing serendipity — he says that “the irony of the serendipity debate” is that “the thing that is being mourned has actually gone from a fringe experience to the mainstream of culture”. Few browsed library stacks to see what was next to the book they were looking for, but nearly everyone Googles: exposure to new, not intentionally sought information is near-constant on the web.

Johnson uses the example of De Forest being wrong about why his experiment was doing what it was doing, but his work still leading to the development of vacuum tubes and computers, but I like this summation on error best: “Being right keeps you in place. Being wrong forces you to explore.”

This refers to the process of taking something that emerges for one use, and repurposing it for another. It is thought that feathers originally evolved to keep a dinosaur warmer, but were exapted for flight. Gutenberg borrowing the technology of the wine press to create the printing press is another example of exaptation. As Johnson more humorously put it, Gutenberg “took a machine designed to get people drunk and turned into into an engine for mass communication.”

Coral reefs are platforms; so is the web. Platforms building is about emergent behavior: beavers don’t set out to create an ecosystem to support kingfishers and dragonflies when they build their dams, but they do. We have consumer GPS systems today because two engineers figured out how to track Sputnik and were asked if they could reverse it (and find an unknown location on earth from a known point in space) for a DOD project. Open platforms, because they allow for more ideas to collide and combine, are more generative.

Throughout his exploration and explication of these patterns, Johnson notes that openness seems to work best. While he acknowledges that the market has been an engine of innovation, it is not the only one, and not necessarily the best one. He believes, and convincingly demonstrates, “that we are often better served by connecting ideas than we are protecting them.”

Good ideas my not want to be free, but they do want to connect, fuse, recombine. They want to reinvent themselves by crossing conceptual borders. They want to complete each other as much as they want to compete.

Armed with awareness of these seven patterns, we can at work or at play, increase the odds we’ll be able to cultivate good ideas. Johnson ends his book with a call to go out and do just that:

Go for a walk; cultivate hunches; write everything down, but keep your folders messy; embrace serendipity; make generative mistakes; take on multiple hobbies; frequent coffeehouses and other liquid networks; follow the links; let others build on your ideas; borrow, recycle, reinvent. Build a tangled bank.

[This review based on the advanced uncorrected proof copy I received through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer program.]


Trusting your own deepest experience
by Sharon Salzberg
ISBN: 1573223409

First, there are two things this book isn’t: dogmatic or proselytizing. I want to be clear about that, because I think there might be a tendency to assume any book about faith must be. It isn’t particularly New Agey, either. (Or maybe that’s just me, revealing my bias.)

What it is: a personal examination of faith, belief, and the struggle to make meaning and deal with suffering. Salzberg is a Buddhist and a meditation teacher, and she shares the story of her spiritual development. She doesn’t present her path as the “right” path or the the only path; she presents it as her path, and encourages readers to explore the possibility and power of faith for themselves.

Early in the book, she relates this story:

The Buddha once told a story about faith: A herd of cows arrives at the bank of a wide stream. The mature ones see the stream and simply wade across it. The Buddha likened them to fully enlightened beings who have crossed the stream of ignorance and suffering. The younger cows, less mature in their wisdom, stumble apprehensively on the shore, but eventually they go forward and cross the stream. Last come the calves, trembling with fear, some just learning how to stand. But these vulnerable, tender calves also get to the other side, the Buddha said. They cross the stream just by following the lowing of their mothers. The calves trust their mothers and, anticipiating the safety of reunion, follow their voices and cross the stream. That, the Buddha said, is the power of faith to call us forward.

I’m not sure I can explain why, but this passage strongly affected me.

Salzberg’s journey from bright faith, through verifying faith, and how faith works through fear, despair, and into action just makes sense to me. I hadn’t considered before that faith isn’t something that you have or not but that it is something you do (in languages other than English, faith is a verb), and that is a powerful idea.

You don’t need to be a Buddhist to get something from reading this book. (Salzberg says in her introduction, “Faith does not require a belief system, and is not necessarily connected to a deity or God, though it doesn’t deny one.”) I think what is required is a willingness to investigate spiritual principles with an open mind; if you have that, you’ll enjoy the journey.