Memories of Future Work

A Brief Book Review of How to Win in a Winner-Take-All World by Neil Irwin

“If you take a sailboat out for a cruise, there are some things you can control, like how you position the sails and guide the rudder. There are others you cannot, like the winds and the currents. Still, to get where you’re looking to go, it’s essential to understand the winds and currents. Successful sailors adapt the things under their control to react intelligently to the winds and currents that are not. In our careers, we can control the jobs we apply for, the training and education we seek out, the assignments for which we raise our hands. But our fortunes are shaped significantly by huge economic and technological shifts that are remaking nearly every industry. This book is a guide to understanding those winds and currents.” - Neil Irwin

“The future is already here—it’s just not very evenly distributed.” - William Gibson

Quite often I have found myself in business meetings with veteran bores fluent in condescension and willful ignorance. I steel myself by imagining future memories of the moment 30 years hence. With all likelihood, in the final calculation, the moment, not to mention the entire existence of my slumberous interlocutor, won’t even be decimal dust in the tally of my joys and pains.

In this way, farsightedness and financial compensation can be quite consoling. Every professional who has worked a day in her life can probably relate. Such is the history of work. The stimulating book How to Win in a Winner-Take-All World: The Definitive Guide to Adapting and Succeeding in High-Performance Careers (2019) is concerned with the future of work. Its author is Neil Irwin, a senior economic correspondent at The New York Times. But you won’t find in the book any mention of businesses like The We Company, the organization behind the shared-office brand WeWork featured in headlines daily; in its government filings for its pending IPO it claims to “reinvent the future of work.” I think The We Company’s absence is for a good reason. To understand why let’s briefly go back in time before we go forward.

It’s 2010. I’m fresh off successes investing during the financial crisis. Being a man with a hammer seeing nails all around, I decided to investigate the commercial real estate industry for ideas. I learned of a little company named Regus. It is today known as IWG and is the only global competition at scale for The We Company. I was serious enough about Regus that I read its financial regulatory filings and toured some of its Manhattan locations. I looked at it not only as someone who might invest in it, but also someone who might use their services someday as an entrepreneur. As a potential business investment, I noticed that during the dot com recession, Regus had been decimated. But it seemed chastened by this experience and smarter about managing the maturities and magnitudes of its liabilities. It had also backed off the idea of top-line growth at all costs. While business slumped in 2007-2009, the company remained solvent. Looking at Regus from the perspective of a customer, its value proposition was appealing. The flexibility and breadth of services on-site were enticing, including shared meeting rooms, virtual office services, and dedicated video conferencing studios. Nevertheless, I passed on the opportunity. (I invested instead in WH Smith, a British newsstand business that had unique customer capture with its real estate footprint in high street and airport locations. That was a great investment.)

What does this have to do with The We Company and more generally the future of work? Well, what’s fascinating to me about WeWork is they aren’t doing anything different than Regus did then. Yes, you get colorful common spaces, upbeat music piped into bathrooms, fruit-flavored water, and free bourgeois coffee. But nothing else that Regus wasn’t offering in 2010 and can’t today. I think partly for this reason The We Company is a distraction on the road to ‘the future of work’. It seems a bad investment today given its incredibly high valuation versus Regus and how seemingly corrupt ownership is. But that’s not the same as saying it won’t survive for decades. There will always probably be some companies who aspire for access to real estate to house growing headcount to encourage face time between staff. But I think this will be less and less, especially after reading Irwin’s book.

What has changed since 2010 is the nature of work and the jobs-to-be-done in the employee and employer relationship. From this vantage, The We Company actually seems not to be that imaginative or inventive. What’s changing about work is that over time employers won’t be asking (1) “How do I scale this company and keep real estate costs low?” but rather (2) “How do I scale this company and have literally zero real estate costs?” Instead of (1) “Where do I house my growing workforce and employee base?” the question becomes (2) “How do I grow without taking on employees at all?” In each question pair, The We Company answers the first but not the second.

Many disruptions are emerging from the combination of the mass availability of Wi-Fi, powerful laptops, smartphones, abundant productivity apps, and the movement of group administration to the cloud. One of those disruptions is that remote “knowledge economy” workers and freelancers are capturing more share of mind and wallet in employment. Imagine “flexible real estate” as just a stepping stone toward the true corporate aspiration, “flexible workforce”. This will mean more business for companies that make this latter aspiration and its prerequisites possible; such as the easy facilitation of payments between corporations and independent contractors, the vetting of both sides to freelance relationships, the keeping of reputation records, etc.

Why does this matter to the investment analyst or manager? It matters because the companies that can successfully answer the second questions above will have a cost advantage on those that cannot or do not. And that cost advantage will likely translate into offering lower prices or being able to invest in other moat-expanding activities. This, in turn, increases their odds of surviving and thriving. Here’s a quote from Irwin about how this disruption is playing out:

“Meanwhile, in the commercial arena, GE has long been a huge customer of very expensive consulting firms like McKinsey and Bain—but sometimes the types of questions they have been hired to take on could be better answered with other approaches. If you’re trying to sell equipment to electrical utilities and need to analyze pricing strategies, maybe a short-term contract with a utility CFO who is between jobs could generate more useful recommendations than a dozen young MBAs slaving away for six weeks.

“Many companies aspire to be the dominant platform to match freelance workers with companies that might wish to engage them. Thanks to the internet, it is easier than ever to find someone with just the right technical expertise or history to provide temporary help.”

Why does this matter to employees? It matters because in the future there will probably be many more opportunities (and pressures) to be the sort of person with hybrid skills in areas such as management, branding, sales, strategy, and finance. The days are diminishing of being able to increase one’s compensation and stature by being a corporate bureaucrat or focused on one silo of activity and just managing more people. Acquiring various skills will probably mean taking lateral movements in your career to face new challenges and learn new skill languages. It will probably also mean learning the various skills necessary to freelance occasionally and perform independent consulting work. There are benefits and drawbacks to this, but it is a clear trend. It probably will require a stronger government social safety net for workers to withstand fluctuations in their income.

Such are some of the ideas presented in Irwin’s book. With examples of individuals from companies like Goldman Sachs, Procter & Gamble, Google, Netflix, and others, he makes a strong case for aspiring to be “Pareto-optimal”. This means, among many things, being someone who views their relationship with their employer as a contract rather than a marriage, who approaches each day hungry to acquire new skills, and who maintains a growth mindset through thick and thin. Highly recommended.

The Lessons of History

A Brief Book Review of The Lessons of History by Will and Ariel Durant

“You have to be an independent thinker because you can’t make money agreeing with the consensus view, which is already embedded in the price. Whenever you’re betting against the consensus, there’s a significant probability you’re going to be wrong, so you have to be humble.” - Ray Dalio

At times this book reveals its age and the zeitgeist in which it was written, with thoughts to a modern reader that would be very dated and very backward (e.g., its descriptions in one chapter of what constitute sin). At other times, though, it feels like a gift, with some beautiful writing on history. To the latter point, this example:

“Human history is a brief spot in space, and its first lesson is modesty. At any moment a comet may come too close to the earth and set our little globe turning topsy-turvy in a hectic course, or choke its men and fleas with fumes or heat; or a fragment of the smiling sun may slip off tangentially—as some think our planet did a few astronomic moments ago—and fall upon us in a wild embrace ending all grief and pain. We accept these possibilities in our stride, and retort to the cosmos in the words of Pascal: ‘When the universe has crushed him man will still be nobler than that which kills him, because he knows that he is dying, and of its victory the universe knows nothing.’”

And this:

“Our blood remembers millenniums.”

After a few chapters you kind of see why Ray Dalio counts this among his favorite books, especially in its handling of political history; such as when the Durants write,

“The fear of capitalism has compelled socialism to widen freedom, and the fear of socialism has compelled capitalism to increase equality.”

A worthwhile, stimulating read that I will likely revisit.

Story Man Gets Paid

A Brief Book Review of Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang

Of the eight works in Ted Chiang’s collection of science fiction short stories titled Stories of Your Life and Others (2002), I thoroughly enjoyed three. Those three being “Understand”, “Story of Your Life”, and “Liking What You See: A Documentary.” The first of my three favorites, “Understand”, is a thrilling exploration of how one man chooses to change his world after becoming super intelligent. The second, “Story of Your Life”, is the basis for Arrival (2016), an excellent alien contact film with a non-linear plot revolving around linguistics. My third favorite, “Liking What You See: A Documentary”, is a cheeky, dystopian exploration of a cure for the oldest of human social biases, “lookism”. When you think about it, three favorites out of eight is a pretty good record. If Chiang were a professional basketball player taking three-point shots, this would be a good shooting performance (3 out of 8, or 37.5%). (“Kobe”) For comparison, when I read Ray Bradbury’s immaculate The Illustrated Man (1951), I found favorites in eight of the 18 stories (44.4%). Ray is the best, though. (“Steph”) If they were shooting free throws, this would be very bad. I’m willing to wager, though, that successfully writing popular science fiction is more analogous to hitting contested professional threes.

While all eight stories were stimulating and Chiang is an inventive storyteller with broad knowledge, the other five stories were a bit disappointing; some started out hot but clanged against the rim. “Hell Is the Absence of God” could’ve been a thoughtful, creative exploration of grief, faith, and salvation. Instead, through employing ignorant, stigma-perpetuating tropes about mental health, Chiang airballs into the stands. Even Carlton Banks didn’t miss this badly. For such a polymath, Chiang should know better. That said, when Chiang is good, his writing is among the best science fiction I’ve read. “Understand” and “Stories of Your Life” were incredible. They alone motivate me to want to read his other short story collections.

Frankenstein

A Brief Book Review of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Like many people in the western world, I thought I knew most things about the fictional character Victor Frankenstein and his monster. The term “Frankenstein” today permeates the English language and suggests someone who has created a thing that is an albatross for its creator. But to actually read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) revealed a more surprising origin to these characters and their story than I realized. To put it succinctly, if you haven’t read this before, it might not be the novel you probably think it is—at least it wasn’t for me. In highly stylized gothic prose and an incredibly dramatic plot, Shelley has created a surprisingly intense sermon on love, friendship, grief, revenge, science, ambition, loyalty, and kinship.

And So Can You

A Brief Book Review of You Can Be a Stock Market Genius by Joel Greenblatt

In August 2012, I moved back to New York from San Francisco and set up a sole proprietorship, Mutoro Group, LLC. I began investing my own money full-time. It wasn’t much money. But it was mine, and it worked. For three years, I ate what I killed, so to speak, given I didn’t have any other earnings besides the income I generated through my investment ideas. I ate pretty well. I took an idea I had found in Joel Greenblatt’s poorly titled but quirky and incredible book You Can Be a Stock Market Genius (1997), which I had first read in July 2010, and applied it with success. He described several approaches for investment gains. One in particular caught my attention. He described how if you found publicly traded companies mispriced in the market and selling at a discount to their value, you should study the options on their shares. In particular, you should investigate their long-dated, out-of-the-money call options because these might be even more underpriced. That $1 you found selling for 70 cents might be selling for 25 cents if you acquired its long-dated options instead.

I went about applying a somewhat more involved version of this useful framework from Greenblatt’s book. I made multiples of my money on the computer manufacturer Dell, on the giant, beleaguered insurer AIG, and on the home security company ADT. I was compounding money at an attractive rate and increasing my net worth faster than it ever had grown. The biggest challenge I had was making sure I kept enough capital on the sidelines to cover my living expenses and taxes, while plowing more money into investments. I spent the bulk of my time reading and thinking. In the course of a year, I might unearth one or two ideas that I had high convictions about and then make a large allocation toward them. It was challenging, and not every idea worked; I took a loss on a Chinese textile company with corrupt management I had not vetted thoroughly enough, and I made a poorly reasoned investment into a leveraged natural gas driller before the energy industry bear-market. I learned important lessons on my own dime from these two misadventures. Even considering those losses, the whole operation was profitable and, in many ways, blissful. 

Rereading You Can Be a Stock Market Genius this week felt like a refreshing reunion with an old, wise friend.

Seven Brief Lessons on Physics

A Brief Book Review of Seven Brief Lessons on Physics by Carlo Rovelli

I really enjoyed this book by the Italian theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics (2014). On its surface, it is an explanation of gravity, general relativity, quantum mechanics, black holes, and other topics. But a few layers below, at its heart, it is a love letter to modern physics and the history of scientific thought, debate, and exploration. Rovelli does a great service to the public in wonderfully describing the successes, failures, challenges, opportunities, and ambitions of the field. I think he speaks best for himself, so I’ll share this quote below from the book:

“When we talk about the big bang or the fabric of space, what we are doing is not a continuation of the free and fantastic stories that humans have told nightly around campfires for hundreds of thousands of years. It is the continuation of something else: of the gaze of those same men in the first light of day looking at tracks left by antelope in the dust of the savannah - scrutinizing and deducting from the details of reality in order to pursue something that we can’t see directly but can follow the traces of. In the awareness that we can always be wrong, and therefore ready at any moment to change direction if a new track appears; but knowing also that if we are good enough we will get it right and will find what we are seeking. That is the nature of science.

“The confusion between these two diverse human activities—inventing stories and following traces in order to find something—is the origin of the incomprehension and distrust of science shown by a significant part of our contemporary culture. The separation is a subtle one: the antelope hunted at dawn is not far removed from the antelope deity in that night’s storytelling.

“The border is porous. Myths nourish science, and science nourishes myth. But the value of knowledge remains. If we find the antelope, we can eat.

“Our knowledge consequently reflects the world. It does this more or less well, but it reflects the world we inhabit. This communication between ourselves and the world is not what distinguishes us from the rest of nature. All things are continually interacting with one another, and in doing so each bears the traces of that with which it has interacted: and in this sense all things continuously exchange information about one another.”

Junk

A Brief Book Review of Junk by Ayad Akhtar

If you read the Wall Street Journal or Financial Times with any regularity, it’ll be hard not to think of a few things if you read this play, Junk (2017) by Ayad Akhtar. It’ll be hard not to think of Michael Milken when the financier Robert Merkin speaks, Ivan Boesky when the arbitrager Boris Pronsky enters a scene, or Rudolph Giuliani when we meet the prosecutor Giuseppe Addesso. These fictional characters and the drama described are clearly pulled from the real characters mentioned and headlines of 1980s Wall Street. For someone well versed in this period in the history of finance, this can get a bit distracting. Worse, at times it can make the comings and goings around the emergence of junk bonds feel derivative.

For a general audience not familiar with Barbarians at the Gate: The Fall of RJR Nabisco (1989) or Oliver Stone’s movie Wall Street (1987) and other productions about this era, this will likely be a thrilling introduction to a period in American history. A period where newly relaxed standards around leverage changed the country massively. To Akhtar’s laudable credit, he has imagined a more multiracial, multicultural, and woman-welcoming version of the heights of Wall Street than the pathetic demographics of the industry would suggest exists today or did 30 years ago. And his Shakespearean ambition to describe something more eternal about power, masculinity, and succession is admirable.

If Junk piques your interest, it might be worth it afterward to read John Kenneth Galbraith’s brief but great book A Short History of Financial Euphoria (1990). As I described in a review of it this year: 

Galbraith contends that whenever someone is said to be a genius in financial markets, they probably are not, and whenever something is said to be new, it probably is not. “The rule,” he writes, “is that financial operations do not lend themselves to innovations. […] The world of finance hails the invention of the wheel over and over again, often in a slightly more unstable version.”

Quality and How to Attain It

A Brief Book Review of What I Learned Before I Sold to Warren Buffett: An Entrepreneur’s Guide to Developing a Highly Successful Company by Barnett C. Helberg, Jr.

“If you don’t know me by now, I doubt you’ll ever know me. I never won a Grammy, I won’t win a Tony. But I’m not the only MC keeping it real. When I grab the mic to smash a rapper, girls go ‘Illlll!’” - KRS One (1995)

“Games are won by players who focus on the playing field — not by those whose eyes are glued to the scoreboard.” - Warren Buffett

“Be glad I pushed my album back, I did y’all hoes a favor.” - Lil’ Kim (1999)

 “To me, it’s obvious that the winner has to be very selective. It’s been obvious to me since very early in life. I don’t know why it’s not obvious to very many other people.” - Charlie Munger 

The world has no shortage of business books. And if we’re being honest, as in any field, most of these books probably aren’t wholly original or remotely remarkable. For every Security Analysis (1940), When Genius Failed (2000), or Shoe Dog (2016) there are many more also-rans. But that doesn’t mean these books aren’t worth reading. It doesn’t mean they don’t contain the kernels of some truths ignored or forgotten that when remembered, reinforced, or applied better could be significant.

Consider another field entirely: sports. A championship-winning coach has in all likelihood spent her entire life reading books and articles about the game she loves. She has probably made a deeply ingrained habit of watching games live or tapes of games and weighing analyses of plays and strategies. Through an immense volume of critical consumption, she has gained a robust sense of quality and how to attain it. She has likely forgotten more than you and I will ever know about the sport. And despite this wealth of data, information, and knowledge, she still has the wisdom to know she can’t stop and the passion to not want to. Though at the top of her field, she still with enthusiasm, whether expressed quietly or vocally, picks up books and analyses on the game, whether about it broadly or about arcane aspects of it. And she almost definitely watches game tape with a level of interest bordering on obsession. If the best make time for this, I’m sure you and I probably can too.

This is by analogy why I enjoy reading business and investment books. I read poetry and novels, sure, but I always come back to business books. I have so far started three businesses, served as a temporary CFO or strategic advisor to the officers and managers of dozens of others, but I know, like our hypothetical coach, that I can’t stop learning and don’t want to. Open-minded reading and thinking seems a competitive advantage in any field.

This is a long way of saying I was glad I picked up and read Barnett C. Helzberg, Jr’s What I Learned Before I Sold to Warren Buffett: An Entrepreneur’s Guide to Developing a Highly Successful Company (2003). It got me thinking. 

As a book, it is partly family memoir, partly Berkshire Hathaway case study, and partly business self-help. It contains six sections. Those cover Managing, Decision Making, Hiring, Inspiring, Communicating, and Focusing. At times it feels like it’s almost too much for one book. But I think it serves an honorable purpose. Helzberg, Jr. clearly wanted a written record of achievement. And he did well to chart the business principles, systems, and habits that grew the small diamond business his grandfather started and that he and his father turned into an American success story. This book is rich with tips, or “Helzberg’s Hints” as they are dubbed. There are more in it than I have the time to spend here outlining. But generally, what I took away from it is this: Attaining enduring quality and success in any field isn’t a discrete event. It’s not a thing you can touch or a place you can go or a thing you can buy. It’s organizing principles and adaptive systems of habits and processes that increase and maintain one’s edge of achieving a stated objective.

Wade in the Water

A Brief Book Review of Wade in the Water by Tracy K. Smith

It was toward the end of the first poem in Tracy K. Smith’s fourth book of poetry, Wade in the Water (2018), that I scrawled in the margin of the page, “to be alive is such a gift”. Such was the response that just one of her poems met in this reader.  

The book is split into four distinct sections. The poems in these sections span more than a century in the timeline of American history, from a mosaic of the experiences of Reconstruction-era black Civil War veterans soliciting the Freedmen’s Bureau for their pensions, to the lives of black American women in the 21st century. It is truly a gift to be alive and also to see how Smith immerses the reader in each poem with beautiful imagery and novel turns of phrase. In “Garden of Eden”, about her life in Brooklyn during her thirties, we join her doing “bank-balance math and counting days” as the “known-sun [sets] on the dawning century”; in “A Man’s World” we see “the constellation of need” at the alluring and dangerous core of masculine sexuality; in “Ghazal” we learn that “History is a ship forever setting sail.” This is a long way of saying that Ms. Smith spits bars. She was appointed Poet Laureate of the United States in 2017 and is a Pulitzer Prize winner and a professor of humanities and creative writing at Princeton University. I look forward to reading her other works.

The Ten Keough Commandments

A Brief Book Review of The Ten Commandments of Business Failure by Donald R. Keogh

“I've been in this game for years, it made me an animal / There's rules to this sh*t, I wrote me a manual / A step-by-step booklet for you to get your game on track, not your wig pushed back” — The Notorious B.I.G. (1997)

At its heart, The Ten Commandments for Business Failure (2008) is about the costs and rewards in business of courage, thoughtfulness, and optimism. Three traits that author Donald R. Keough (1926-2015) seems to have had in spades. Keough had a business career one could by any measure consider blessed. After forty-plus years with the Coca Cola Company, culminating in roles as President and Chief Operating Officer, Keough began a second career as an active board member in leading companies. Among others, he served on the boards of IAC, McDonald’s, Allen & Company, The Washington Post Company, H.J. Heinz Company, Home Depot, and Berkshire Hathaway.

It was at the 2019 Annual Shareholder Meeting of the lattermost earlier this month that I picked up Keough’s book. It sat beside a dozen other titles chosen by Warren Buffett for recognition and sale to the thousands of shareholders who make the annual pilgrimage to Omaha. I had long been interested in learning more about Keough’s approach to business because of his unique relationship with Buffett.

In 1960, when Buffett was 30 years old and Keough was 34 years old, the two met. Keough had just bought a house across the street from Buffett in Omaha. Back then, both were by no means the famous executives and business leaders they would become. According to Buffett, “We were just two guys trying to make a living to feed our families.” The Oracle of Omaha, as Buffett would only later be called, was then a relatively unknown manager of a young investment partnership called Buffett Partners, Ltd. As they both retell it, Buffett knocked on the door of his new neighbor Keough and asked him to invest $10,000 or so in the partnership. Keough flat out rejected him. Despite Keough giving Buffett the Mutumbo finger wag, the two went on to form a close friendship and business relationship that lasted decades. “Don can tell you to go to hell so wonderfully you’ll enjoy the journey,” Buffett writes in the forward. Keough eventually realized the error of his ways, though, becoming a shareholder and board member of Buffett’s next investment platform, Berkshire Hathaway, the fifth largest company in the world by market capitalization, which at the time of my writing was $500 billion.

Buffett described Keough as “one of the few guys I feel I can hand the keys over to.” And Keough heaps praise on his neighbor, friend, and business associate, calling Buffett “the world’s greatest simplifier.” While these two were fond of each other and kindred spirits, Keough was his own man. A philosophy major in college who dabbled in theater and clearly had a knack for storytelling, throughout the book, Keough sprinkled beautiful quotes I’d never before encountered from the likes of George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, and William Blake. These are all in service of his central thesis, told with vigor and dozens of case studies, namely: “You will fail if you quit taking risks, are inflexible, isolated, assume infallibility, play the game close to the line, don’t take time to think, put all your faith in outside experts, love your bureaucracy, send mixed messages, and fear failure.” 

I really enjoyed this witty, punchy book. Keough won me over with his charming writing style, tactful use of inversions to make his points, and the thoroughness with which he manages to explore these ideas despite the book’s brevity. I will happily revisit this.

Dream Work

A Brief Book Review of Dream Work by Mary Oliver

If I have before read the poetry of Mary Oliver (1935-2019), I don’t recall it. In this book of 45 poems, Dream Work (1986), I found a few worth remembering. Her often vivid language guides the way. In “The River”, we glimpse the “blue lung of the Caribbean”; in “Sunrise”, we awaken to “the familiar fabric of the dawn”; in “The Shark”, we meet “darkness you can’t imagine”; and in “The Waves” we learn “The sea isn’t a place but a fact, and a mystery under its green and black cobbled coat that never stops moving”.

I bought two books of Oliver’s poetry recently. While Dream Work didn’t strike a chord in me as strongly as poems by Yusef Komunyakaa and Claudia Rankine or the haikus of Richard Wright, whose works I read recently, I look forward to reading more of Oliver’s catalog. She has an appealing ability at describing, and persuading you of, the beauty and spiritual vitality at the heart of the natural world.

The Curse of Bigness

A Brief Book Review of The Curse of Bigness by Tim Wu

“Over the years, AT&T had not been content to be merely the neighborhood telephone monopolist. No, AT&T was the jealous God of telecommunications, brooking no rivals, accepting no share, and swallowing any children with even the most remote chance of unseating Kronos.” — Tim Wu 

“[Rockefeller] was like a general who, besieging a city surrounded by fortified hills, views from a balloon the whole great field, and sees how, this point taken, that must fall; this hill reached, that fort is commanded. And nothing was too small: the corner grocery in Browntown, the humble refining still on Oil Creek, the shortest private pipe line. Nothing, for little things grow.” — Ida Tarbell 

“Yo, I, I feel big. Not, not big in the sense of, weight. You know what I mean? Like gainin' weight or nothin' like that. Like colossal. Like, you know what I mean, like… [sighs]. I heard you were lookin' for me.” — Lil Wayne on “Mr. Carter” (2008)

In The Curse of Bigness (2018), policy advocate and Columbia Law School professor Tim Wu does a brilliant job on several fronts. He does well describing the history of economic concentration in the United States, Europe, and Japan. He describes swiftly and clearly how the “centralization of private power” can, and often does, lead to the stifling of liberties democratic societies claim to hold dear. These liberties include equality of opportunity, humane work conditions, sufficient leisure hours and space, economic security, environmental cleanliness, and a sense of individual autonomy. 

Wu does good work describing how the lobbying efforts of a few large, wealthy companies are often sadly far more effective than the diffuse power of millions of middle-class and everyday citizens. Paraphrasing the scholar Mancur Olson of Harvard, Wu writes, “the small and organized will dominate the large and disorganized.” This point called to mind for me Yuval Noah Harari’s great book Homo Deus (2015), which I reviewed last year. It has great passages in it about how the most distinguishing aspect of the human species in relation to every other organism on Earth is our ability to organize ourselves through creating, believing, and sharing stories. To this end, storytelling is easier for a small, coordinated group than a large, disparate one. Relatedly, the cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead once famously said, “Never doubt that a small, thoughtful, committed group of citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” That quote is filled with hope, and I have long loved it. When I played lacrosse in high school, I often practiced in a shirt with that quote on the back. Years later, I see now that the hidden power of that quote is that it portends both good and bad changes, good actors and bad. Wu, here, is focused on the bad.

Wu splits the playing field into two camps. On one side are monopolists, industry titans, and laissez-faire economists, folks like John D. Rockefeller, J.P. Morgan, and Robert Bork. They marshal ideas such as “economies of scale” and “consumer welfare” for their arguments. They contend they are not hampering democracy or civil liberties but rationalizing markets in need of rationalization. On the other side, there are anti-trust politicians and jurists, people like Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, President Theodore Roosevelt, President William Howard Taft, and Robert Pitofsky. To some of these trust-busters, the only trusts allowed should be owned by the government on behalf of the people. To other anti-trust advocates, if there are to be private trusts, the bad ones should be broken up or fined heavily, as happened to Standard Oil, AT&T, and Microsoft.

Wu marshals a multi-decade history of facts about the steel, railroad, telecom, and oil refining industries, to make clear his underlying thesis: Where monopolists tread, fascists soon follow. For this,The Curse of Bigness is valuable. Wu tells us of how it was German monopolists in various industries in the 1930s who were crucial in allowing the Nazi regime and Hitler to gain power. This is clearly a path no sensible, ethical reader would want their society to follow. 

Where the book starts to fall apart is when Wu tries to port his history and cure for the monopolies of the 19th and 20th centuries into the 21st. Namely, it feels light in its assessment of how to counteract the worst aspects of the big four tech firms, those being Apple, Google, Facebook, and Amazon. Wu is correct that these companies have often used buying rivals or “cloning” products as means to stifle competition. But this is as old as capitalism itself. Yes, the Internet has enabled new strategies and tactics for would-be monopolists, some of which I reviewed after reading Reid Hoffman’s book Blitzscaling (2018). Given this, it is likely Wu is correct that “consumer welfare” principles (i.e., are prices rising or falling), which are popular for defending large enterprises in American courtrooms, are a poor barometer for whether modern markets are overly consolidated. 

However, the other approach for gauging over-consolidation, i.e., whether sizable competitors exist or are emerging, is also wanting. More importantly, a negative answer to that question does not necessitate solutions the Roosevelts and Tafts would’ve preferred. Breaking companies apart doesn’t seem to work here as well as it did then. How do you strip Google’s ability to serve ads next to its almost ubiquitously popular search engine when serving ads is 99% of its revenue? How do you tell advertisers to spend ad dollars on nascent social networks when the broader Facebook ad network has the best ROI for them in addition to the most users? How—as strategist and writer Ben Thompson posits in a great, detailed essay on Senator Elizabeth Warren’s recent anti-trust policy proposals (which to me read very similarly to Wu’s)—do you prevent Apple from bundling a browser with its phones and computers? How do you download a browser without a browser? Does this even matter to consumers or competitors? Where Wu’s brilliance in this book seems to crumble, I think Thompson’s begins to take shape. I would hope in the 2020 election cycle some candidates bring thoughtful, constructive attitudes to these complex questions.

Creative Selection

A Brief Book Review of Creative Selection by Ken Kocienda

“Gentlemen, we have a great deal of ground to cover. We’re going to do things a lot differently than they’ve been done here before… [We’re] going to relentlessly chase perfection, knowing full well we will not catch it, because perfection is not attainable. But we are going to relentlessly chase it because, in the process, we will catch excellence.” - Vince Lombardi

“Most people make the mistake of thinking design is what it [a product] looks like. People think it’s this veneer—that the designers are handed this box and told, ‘Make it look good!’ That’s not what we think design is. It’s not just what it looks like and feels. Design is how it works.” - Steve Jobs

“Look for ways to make quick progress. Watch for project stalls that might indicate a lack of potential. Cut corners to skip unnecessary effort. Remove distractions to focus attention where it needs to be. Start approximating your end goal as soon as possible. Maximize the impact of your most difficult effort. Combine inspiration, decisiveness, and craft to make decisions.” - Ken Kocienda

If you ever wanted a deep, detailed look inside Apple and the workplace culture that enabled the creation of the greatest consumer products in history, this book is for you. Creative Selection (2018) is written by Ken Kocienda, who was a Principle Engineer of iPhone Software at Apple. Kocienda played key roles in numerous inventions that, at the time, were incredibly novel, differentiated, and difficult to create but today are almost taken for granted. These inventions include the Safari web browser, the keyboard for the original iPhone, and touchscreen autocorrection features on iOS.

We learn a lot in this book. We learn about the importance of pushing for simplicity and incorporating self-explanatory elements into whatever you create. To do this requires a lot of work. Explaining how it’s done, Kocienda repeatedly evokes Thomas Edison’s famous quip that invention is “one per cent inspiration and ninety-nine per cent perspiration”. This entire book is essentially a case study in support of that notion. It is written in praise of the unavoidable necessity of “unglamorous grunt work”. I discussed this topic at length in my essay The Slog last year.

Kocienda takes us into the Apple conference rooms where the software powering the iPhone and the iPad were invented. Conference rooms with names like Diplomacy, Between, A Rock, and A Hard Place. Conference rooms with as much character and aesthetic displeasure as a thirty-year-old Peter Pan bus stop annex, with sparse seating consisting of bean bag chairs and beat-up old Ikea furniture—basically as different and unpolished as the inviting, airy, and beautiful Apple Stores we see today.

In these rooms, The Man (i.e., Steve Jobs) and the rigid hierarchy beneath him are ever present. But just as present and just as important is a culture built around demos. Yes, demos. If there is one thing that seems to stand out in Apple from this book, it is a superabundant focus on the power of demos. But not just any demos. A constant flow of demos that build upon previous iterations. Demos that provide “concrete and specific examples” that spur discussion and actionable feedback that leads to progress for the next iteration of the demo. Demos that someday become the seamless, integrated products that wow you. Apple seems a culture focused on tangible progress, not empty brainstorming sessions. It probably helps that everyone from the company mentioned in the book is world class at whatever their role is and tireless in their devotion to their craft.

We also learn of the importance of imbruing “craft, taste, and empathy” into everything we do; the importance of “dogfooding” our creations (i.e., living with them from a user’s perspective); and the importance of embracing the idea that “when software behavior is mysterious, get more organized.”

We also learn about the danger of “Seagull Managers”, namely a “top executive who is rarely around but flies in occasionally and unexpectedly from who knows where, lands on your beach, squawks noisily, fans its wings all over the place, launches itself back into the air, circles overhead, drops a big poop on everyone, and then flies away, leaving the rest of the team to clean up the mess, figure out what it all meant, and wonder what to do about the inevitable follow-up visit.” Yikes. If this sounds like you, work on yourself; try not to be like that. 

There are a lot of great, useable insights in this engaging and welcome book. -

The Wall Will Tell You

A Brief Book Review of “The Wall Will Tell You” by Hampton Fancher

I picked up this book on a whim. I was at a bookstore and mainly attracted to it because I was curious what the screenwriter for Blade Runner (1982) and Blade Runner 2049 (2017) had to say about writing. It’s so thin I almost didn’t notice it on the shelf, it disappearing in the slim darkness in-between bigger books next to it. I’m glad I found it. It didn’t disappoint. Hampton Fancher has written a brief, punchy, encouraging, vivid book. It’s less a series of essays on writing and more hundreds of fortune cookie-length philosophies and strongly-worded scriptures on how to create compelling narratives, build sympathetic characters, and engage an audience. I might mine this for quotes, such as:

“Try to make a life of trying. You want to be smart and successful, but what you are is not so smart and you fail, and if you’re afraid of being a failure and you don’t try not to be, a failure is what you’ll be. When you’re failing is when you’re learning. Learning how you failed teaches you how to succeed.”

Dreamland

A Brief Book Review of “Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic” by Sam Quinones

From The New York Times:

“Over the past two decades, more than 200,000 people have died in the United States from overdoses involving prescription opioids, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 200,000 more have died from overdoses involving illegal opioids, like heroin.”

From Dr. Nathaniel Katz, a pain specialist in Boston:

“My instructors told me that when you take opioids for pain you can’t become addicted because pain absorbs the euphoria. That was at Harvard Medical School. It was all rubbish, we all know now. Why do we listen to those messages? Because we wanted them to be true.”

In a book filled with powerful, tragic stories, there’s one story in particular at the core of crime reporter Sam Quinones’s book Dreamland (2015) that might elicit some of the deepest, most frustrating sighs. It goes something like this: In 1980, the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) published a one-paragraph letter to the editor from a doctor at Boston University named Hershel Jick. In the decade prior, Dr. Jick grew highly interested in using statistical data to track the effects of various drugs on patients at area hospitals. Technologically illiterate, he would hire computer technicians to run his studies. Out of the many studies he ran, one in particular took on a monstrous influence far beyond his wildest nightmares. With the help of a graduate student named Jane Porter, Jick investigated the number of people who had developed addictions after being given narcotic prescriptions while hospitalized. Findings in hand, Dr. Jick wrote a paragraph in longhand and gave it to his secretary to type. It stated that of the 12,000 or so patients treated with opioids while in area hospitals before 1979, and who had records in his database, only four had grown addicted. On page 123 of the January 10, 1980, edition of the NEJM, the findings of Porter and Jick were published. The paragraph was soon forgotten by the authors themselves. 

Four out of 12,000. It would be remarkable if generally true, and if widely applicable. Sadly, it was neither generally true nor widely applicable. As Quinones writes in a blog entry on “the findings of Porter and Jick” published after the book was released:

“Remember this was data taken from the 1960s and 1970s, a time when narcotic painkillers were rigorously controlled, and never given to patients to take home with them. So it stands to reason that patients, under such strict controls and administered the drugs only in hospital, would rarely develop addictions – as the letter’s headline in the journal read when it was published: Addiction Rare in Patients Treated With Narcotics.

“They simply didn’t have access to large supplies of narcotics, and especially drugs to take home with them, as patients routinely do today. Hence they didn’t run much risk of addiction. (The whole thing, btw, helped change my mind about what ignites a scourge of addiction, which I now believe is not demand, but supply. Supply first sparks demand.)

“The problem came not with how the letter was written, but how it was interpreted, then used, by others.”

In the two decades that followed, the innovative marketers-cum-entrepreneurs-cum-scientists-cum-corporate-drug-dealers the Sackler family, their company Purdue Pharma, and their army of well-incentivized sales reps used Porter and Jick to ignite a revolution in how hospitals treated pain, how pharmaceutical drugs were marketed, and how Americans consumed opioids. This little paragraph in an elite publication, forgotten by the authors themselves, was used continuously to buttress the idea that prescription opioids were safe and non-addictive. Ignored was the reality that the study was only about patients in controlled situations. Ignored was the reality that this wasn’t some rigorous study but a throwaway paragraph about initial findings. The findings of Porter and Jick were published in a time before the NEJM digitized and made easily searchable its records; moreover, doctors on the receiving end of marketing messages that opioids are safe didn’t have the time, access, or incentives to check paper publications on this much cited research to see it was largely meaningless. Today, we know the hypothesis that opioids are not addictive is false. There is a time and place for opioids in medical care. It's just not what's been marketed the last thirty years.

In the process of using a tiny paragraph as a cornerstone to build deceptive and destructive marketing messages, the Sackler family amassed a wealth of over $14 billion. They became world-renowned philanthropists, using their dirty money to buy museum wings and access to elite institutions like Ivy League universities. U.S. attorneys general are trying to claw back some of that money today. In the process, the Sacklers aggressively introduced millions of Americans to what Quinones calls “the morphine molecule,” setting the stage for the other epidemic that followed in its wake. 

Given how expensive prescription opioids are, it was no surprise that once addicted to them, addicts, pulled largely from the white middle and upper class, turned to something cheaper and stronger. They found that in black tar heroin. Quinones does a remarkable job showing the parallels between networks of corrupt doctors and “pill mills” in places like southern Ohio, Appalachia, and Oregon who distributed the creations of the Sackler family and the Xalisco Boys (Ha-LEES-koh), a network of a families from a small state in Mexico that similarly revolutionized the illegal opiate trade. Using industry innovations such as novel branding, premium service, sales discounts, and decentralized management, the Xalisco Boys did for heroin what Walmart did for almost everything else. Reading their story felt like reading a bizarro version of Sam Walton’s great memoir Sam Walton: Made in America (1992).

Quinones here clearly holds special contempt for the Sacklers but does not demonize the small-time heroin traffickers who benefited from the addiction frenzy the Sacklers created. Nor does he demonize the addicts whose brain chemistry fell victim to these drugs. But he does raise interesting questions. Why do we usually demonize the street dealer but not the corporate drug dealer executive? The only difference he sees is one can afford better lawyers and posher surroundings. Moreover, America has had other epidemics before this one. Why was the reaction to this one different? (See, Racism). The crack epidemic ravaged inner cities and post-industrial communities that had similarly lost jobs the way Appalachia had. But it was also largely considered an epidemic among black Americans. It was not until the neighbors and children of white legislatures fell prey to addiction through prescription opioids and illegal heroin that the state and media became more interested in rehabilitation versus incarceration, in addiction as a chronic mental illness rather than as a character flaw. 

This is a challenging, stimulating book and I think an important one for learning a crucial aspect of American society of the last three decades.

The Way of the Writer

A Brief Book Review of “The Way of the Writer: Reflections on the Art and Craft of Storytelling” by Charles Johnson

Charles Johnson is a gifted storyteller and probably best known for his works of literary fiction, especially the National Book Award winner Middle Passage (1990). However, in this collection of 42 essays, The Way of the Writer: Reflections on the Art and Craft of Storytelling (2016), he comes across more as a hardworking, determined, and successful teacher. Though his essay style gravitates more toward professorial lecturing than emotional persuasion, this book works best when Johnson is sharing personal anecdotes. It is most instructive when he elaborates on his relationship with his mother, his mentorship by the late writer John Gardner, his wide-ranging enthusiasms as a reader and cartoonist, the utility of working in journalism, and some of his techniques and tools for masterful storytelling. I found it less compelling during the essays on philosophy later in the book, in which he tackles ideas such as the similarities and differences between Buddhism and French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialism. That said, I am grateful Johnson wrote and published this collection of essays. You will learn a lot about the “[seductive] beauty of a blank page” and how to become a better writer, whatever your genre of expression. To hear Johnson tell it, a writer needs personal experience (live a little), systematic study (read a lot), humility (revise continuously), and an open and inquisitive mind (buy a dictionary; no, seriously, buy a dictionary). I have already acquired some books referenced in this (including a dictionary) and will likely acquire more.

Woman World

A Brief Book Review of “Woman World” by Aminder Dhaliwal

After reading Michael Findlay’s wonderful book The Value of Art (2014) and feeling inspired to see more visual art in person, I walked into the Museum of Arts and Design in Columbus Circle one afternoon, it being next to my office. Currently in the museum on the third floor is a work by renowned American feminist artist Judy Chicago from 2004. On capitalized, black lettering on two poster-sized white tapestries are the words, “What If Women Ruled the World.” The words are all the more provocative and captivating by the images they frame. I’d describe those images, but you should just see it for yourself.

The entire work and those words and images were fresh in my mind when I later went into a bookstore and stumbled upon this lovely book Woman World (2018) by Aminder Dhaliwal, a Canadian-born cartoonist living in Los Angeles. Woman World is a hilarious, thoughtful, and engaging graphic novel about a post-apocalyptic world in which men no longer exist and are a fading memory and women rule the world. While the topics covered in the many vignettes within the book aren’t always light, they are explored with aplomb and the pages are filled with jokes while tackling many contemporary and universal issues of womanhood. Dhaliwal is a talented artist and the vast majority of her visual and written punchlines and ideas land well. A fun, stimulating book.

The Value of Art

A Brief Book Review of “The Value of Art: Money, Power, Beauty” by Michael Findlay

“We know what art is: it’s paintings of horses!” - Jack Donaghy, “30 Rock” (TV Show)

Meandering through the visual arts section of the Strand Bookstore in Manhattan after dinner last Friday, I came across Michael Findlay’s book The Value of Art: Money, Power, Beauty (2014). Briefly scanning the table of contents, I soon realized this was the sort of book I had long been meaning to read. This is somewhat ironic in hindsight; upon finishing this book, you get the strong feeling that reading about art is a very poor substitute for looking at it. Because of Findlay’s persuasive encouragement, you feel empowered to look at art in person as often and as slowly and as quietly as possible.

A Scotland-born veteran art dealer in his seventies working in New York City, Findlay sets out to describe the international art world of the last fifty years. In the process, he is at turns charming, hilarious, sarcastic, biting, democratic, and inspiring in his assessments of the world he inhabits and the individuals, institutions, and cultures within it. It shouldn’t be surprising to glean such understanding from this book. Findlay writes with some claims to authority. He is a Director of Acquavella Galleries and has been the head of the Impressionist and Modern Art Department at Christie’s and a member of its Board of Directors. He also serves on the Art Advisory Panel for the Internal Revenue Service and has been a friend, colleague, and competitor to many notable individuals in the art world. His long, diverse career affords us a book full of captivating stories, such as of art world criminals who used museum donations to facilitate insurance fraud, of unassuming regular librarians who quietly purchased and held iconic paintings which their neighbors thought reproductions, and of artists like Henry Moore, who though reclusive, played the art world so well that his collectors often felt he was doing them a favor when he sold them his sculptures.

The book is segmented into three main sections covering the commercial, social, and intrinsic values of art. Findlay tells us, “The basis of this book is that the value of art is threefold: the possibility of maintaining or increasing its commercial value; the society of like-minded enthusiasts; and the private enjoyment of contemplating the work itself.” Findlay makes the astute point that for any particular work or category of art, none of these three values is constant, as they are “enhanced or diminished by the fluctuating mores and tastes of different times and cultures.”

The first section, on the commercial value of art, is a powerhouse, a thorough and incredibly helpful description of value chains within the art world. As an investor and heavy consumer of various forms of industry research, I only wish more people wrote as clearly and deeply about market structures as what you find here. Refreshingly, Findlay comes across not as jaded or cynical but a wry-witted realist. He tells us that “the price of art, whether sold in the primary or secondary market, is governed by supply, demand, and marketing.” And he dives into each of these three areas in primary and secondary markets with great detail and gusto.

In the “supply” section, we learn about how an individual artist’s total output in their lives is one of the few meaningful empirical variables in assessing the potential commercial value of the body of work he or she produces in a lifetime. This figure is captured in the “catalogue raisonné” (or critical catalogue) and varies greatly from artist to artist. For example, Claude Monet, who is considered prolific, lived until he was 86 years old, painted every day, and produced roughly 2,000 paintings. Whereas Vincent van Goh, who died at age 37, and Jackson Pollock, who lived until age 44, created 864 and 382 paintings, respectively. Other important variables include a work’s Provenance, Condition, Authenticity, Exposure, and Quality. However, before we think an algorithm can be easily used to make forecasts of art prices, Findlay explains how collectors, working in concert, often in private market transactions not covered by journalists or discussed at live auctions, intentionally prop up or diminish the commercial value of art without the public becoming aware. Illiquidity, steep transaction costs, and corruption have front seats in this market.

While it is important that the best artists display “mastery of the medium, clarity of execution, and authority of expression,” we also learn in the “demand” and “marketing” sections how the scarcity principle is employed to the advantage or disadvantage of various parties. Indeed, dealers, artists, collectors, museums, art galleries, auction houses, art fairs, and the general public all play a part, willingly or unwittingly, in increasing the volume of activity, the market price of items sold, and the commissions and fees skimmed from the top.

I said earlier that Findlay is at times biting. That may be an understatement. He reserves special animosity for art investment funds; for listening to audio guides at museums; for feeling compelled to read curator captions of a work of art rather than spend the time to figure out ourselves whether or not we like it and why; for the commissions, preening, and often goofy attempts at prestige of auction houses; for the lack of chairs and benches at museums; for short attention spans and scurrying through exhibits rather than lingering with a few items. Findlay spills the most ink on this lattermost idea. He makes the claim that a single painting can often take an artist as long to create as the full production schedule of a Hollywood movie; yet while a movie is typically digested in a couple hours, a painting might often be viewed for only a few distracted seconds at most, though does not lack versus the movie in its layers of narrative and meaning.

In the end, the third aspect of art, its intrinsic, or personal, value, is what Findlay keeps saying is the most important aspect to weigh. And given “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” it is probably the most stable; though that isn’t saying much given how deep commercial and social influences often play on our individual tastes and preferences, and how our tastes and preferences can change over our own lifetimes. One gets the impression that Findlay only became a dealer because he wanted to make a living following his passion, which was viewing art, and stumbled upon realizing he also was regarded as a trusted broker. He seems someone who has found a way to be happy with the art world irrespective of the peaks and troughs in the commercial and social values of art. We are fortunate he decided to write about his personal experiences.

Zen in the Art of Friendship

“Yell. Jump. Play. Out-run those sons-of-bitches. They’ll never live the way you live. Go do it.” - Ray Bradbury (1994)

In January 2017, I bought a remarkable collection of essays by the legendary writer Ray Bradbury at The American Book Center in Amsterdam. It was titled Zen in the Art of Writing (1994). The quote above comes from the preface. Bradbury tells of how in October 1929, when he was in the fourth grade, he was teased by some of his classmates for liking the comic books of Buck Rogers. Peer pressured and wanting to fit in, he tore his comics apart, tears streaming down his face. A month later he realized his mistake. It wasn’t his comics he should’ve torn up, it was friendships that didn’t value him or his enthusiasms. He went back to his comics. Later Bradbury writes: “Who are your friends? Do they believe in you? Or do they stunt your growth with ridicule and disbelief? If the latter, you haven’t friends. Go find some.” Thank god the young Bradbury found that courage to believe in himself. If not, we wouldn’t have had Fahrenheit 451 (1953), The Illustrated Man (1951), and other classics of American fiction.

When I read Zen in the Art of Writing, I thought a lot about my good friend Mike McCoy. He and Bradbury had the same curiosity, courage, and fighting spirit, not just in themselves but in others. It’s the Ides of March, and Mike would be 34 years old today. I think everyone if they’re lucky in life has a friend like Mike and is a friend to themselves like Bradbury was to himself. Mike was one of the most curious, kind, witty, morally courageous, and intellectually hardworking people I have ever met. It was Mike who encouraged my enthusiasms and said it was okay to try to be the best version of myself; who said it was perfectly fine to talk about Nas and William Wordsworth in the same sentence; to enjoy music, sports, movies, and poetry as much as science, business, politics, and history; to see connections between all where many saw none. So I look forward to his birthday. To toast and celebrate him with beer and barbecue and to remind myself to live with his Bradbarian inspiration: To yell, jump, play, and out-run those sons-of-bitches.

Universal Flex

A Brief Book Review of “The Three-Body Problem” by Liu Cixin

“It’s however you feel, g’head, you swing / Your arms too short to box with god / I don’t kill soloists only kill squads” - Nas (2001)

There’s a scene toward the end of The Matrix (1999) that came to mind after finishing this book. Our protagonist Neo, having gained his full powers and become The One, defeats the evil program Agent Smith by jumping into him and essentially tearing him to pieces from the inside out. The final setting of this battle for the future of humanity was staged in the most mundane of places, a dark hallway in a drab private apartment building. Afterwards, a triumphant Neo flexes his muscles, and the entire universe flexes with him. Such was also how I felt after finishing this thrilling, colossal battle of a book, The Three-Body Problem (2006). I actually flexed. (Apologies to anyone watching.) It is a testament to the narrative powers of author Liu Cixin; he takes you on such an epic journey that in the small conversations and struggles he describes he leaves you too feeling like you just witnessed and won numerous battles for humanity in the most unlikely of places. The story is told with a non-linear, interplanetary, and inter-dimensional narrative that works surprisingly well in holding the reader in suspense while teasing out the beautifully told strands of action to come.

The book begins in the late 1960s during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. A physicist and professor at Tsinghua University, Ye Zhetai, is being forced to atone publicly for teaching his students theoretical physics instead of applied physics. The young communist Red Guards who have confronted him believe he has violated principles of the revolution because his area of study depends perhaps too directly on the exchange of ideas with thinkers from capitalist Western societies. One of his daughters witnesses his degradation and murder, and it profoundly shapes her for decades to come.

We follow that young woman, Ye Wenjie, as she ages and finds herself one day a physicist too; she is trying to solve some highly technical and relatively mundane questions about interstellar communication. Her clever answer to these questions, which employs the Sun to massively amplify radio communications from Earth to other solar systems, dramatically shapes the future of human civilization as we know it.

Lest we cheer Ye Wenjie, a modern Newton, we are faced with some startling questions: Given it takes years on Earth to send and receive communications with the nearest solar systems, what would happen if the first person to communicate with another intelligent civilization was vindictive toward her fellow man, even if that feeling of revenge were in many ways valid? When is vengeance appropriate and solace preferable? How many drafts would you think appropriate to write before sending our first interstellar email or text? What if you screwed up and sent the wrong message? (Damn it, Siri.) What could go wrong or right in the intervening years between call and response? What sort of civil wars or tensions might break out among humans as we try to find one voice to represent ourselves to an alien civilization?

While pondering these wonderfully meaty questions, we also meet Wang Miao, a nanomaterials researcher, and Shi Qiang, a corrupt cop, who form an unlikely duo as protagonists who unfurl the mysteries and battles at the core of this story. They are aided by representatives of the major economies of Earth as well as the United Nations and NATO. The action here and stakes up for grabs are why former President Barack Obama in a 2017 interview with The New York Times just before he left office described The Three-Body Problem as “immense” and “fun” and that it made his "day-to-day problems with Congress seem fairly petty”.

Liu has a talent to take minor interpersonal struggles and show how the fate of the universe can hang in the balance. I once enjoyed an excellent book structured around special relativity called The Forever War (1974) by Joe Haldeman, a writer and professor at MIT. This book takes similar ground. While at the heart of The Forever War is an interstellar love story revolving around the sacrifices of warfare, at the heart of The Three-Body Problem is the topic of intergenerational trauma, on individual and societal levels, and the deep, real, and philosophical consequences of it. In the process, you learn a lot about Chinese intellectual, political, and social history as well as astrophysics and the history of science. This was a remarkable, sweeping story, and I look forward to reading the other two parts of this trilogy.