First Friday Book Synopsis

"…like CliffNotes on steroids…"

The Invention of Air: A book review by Bob Morris

The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America
Steven Johnson
Riverhead Books/Penguin Group (2008)

It would be an exaggeration to suggest that Joseph Priestley (1733-1804) is the focal point of this book. He isn’t. However, he is one of several focal points whose life and work serve as a linchpin to the other focal points, notably the colonial leadership (e.g. Franklin, Washington, Adams, Jefferson), theological, scientific, and political issues as well as tumultuous events preceding and then following the war for independence. Steven Johnson is also intrigued by why some ideas succeed and others don’t. Also, “why these revolutions happen when they do, and why some rare individuals end up having a hand in many of them simultaneously.”

This last comment suggests an element of serendipity in human affairs, one that Johnson also discusses brilliantly in another of his books, The Ghost Map. Priestley played a central and prominent role (albeit an underappreciated one since then) during the Enlightenment and the American Revolution, simultaneously. As Johnson notes on Page 147, “Scientific innovation tends to be imagined as something that exists outside the public sphere of politics, or the sacred space of faith…But for Priestly, these three domains [i.e. science, religion, and politics] were not separate compartments, but rather a kind of continuum, with new developments in each domain reinforcing and intensifying the others.” For me, those comments capture the essence of what motivated Priestly. They also help to explain the nature and extent of his appeal and influence during an era in which there was no shortage of human talent and skill.

The title of this book should not be interpreted literally. Rather, it refers to a process of rigorous scientific inquiry over time during which men such as Franklin and Priestley began to formulate (“invent”) concepts to increase human understanding of natural forces. Note Johnson’s lengthy discussion of waterspouts in the Prologue, “The Vortex.” In fact, Johnson observes, “One of Priestley’s greatest scientific discoveries involved the cycle of energy flowing through all life on Earth, the origin of the very air he was breathing there on the deck [of the ship transporting him from England to America] as he watched his thermometer line bob in the waters of the Atlantic. Together, all those forces converged on him, as the Samson struggled against the current bearing west to the New World…”

As we proceed into an uncertain future, Steven Johnson asserts, we must rely on old institutions and remain hostage to what James O’Toole characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom” because that would betray “the core and, connected values that Priestly shared with the American founders.” Today, “we now see the web of relationships far more clearly than Priestly or Franklin or Jefferson could” and thus can take full advantage of opportunities in a world “still ripe for radical change.” There is indeed cause for hope.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010 Posted by | Bob's blog entries | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

McKinsey conversations with global leaders: John Chambers of Cisco

John Chambers

Here is another outstanding interview in the McKinsey Conversations with Global Leaders series. To watch the conversation with John Chambers in a video interactive, or download a PDF of the transcript, please click here.

*     *     *

The CEO and chairman of Cisco Systems explores approaches to decentralized management and leadership and also offers perspective on the future of Web technology and the opportunity that an economic downturn provides for strategically minded companies.

Source: Operations Practice

John Chambers, CEO and chairman of Cisco Systems, leads off our video interview series McKinsey conversations with global leaders. This ongoing project explores vital management issues, industry insights, and topical analysis with CEOs of today’s leading global companies.

In this video, Chambers explores approaches to decentralized management and leadership. He also provides perspective on the future of Web technology and the opportunity that an economic downturn provides for strategically minded companies. James Manyika, a director in McKinsey’s San Francisco office, conducted the interview in San Jose, California, in May 2009.

Watch the conversation in the video interactive, and/or read the transcript provided online.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010 Posted by | Bob's blog entries | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Get Out of Your Own Way: A book review by Bob Morris

Get Out of Your Own Way: Overcoming Self-Defeating Behavior
Mark Goulston and Philip Goldberg
A Perigee Book/The Berkeley Publishing Group (1996)

Long ago I realized that most wounds are self-imposed. Mark Goulston and Philip Goldberg probably had that in mind when suggesting the many (most?) problems that people have are the result of self-defeatism in attitude and/or behavior. Goulston and Goldberg suggest that there are ten valuable lessons to be learned from that reality:

In this context, I am reminded of Henry Ford’s observation, “Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re probably right.” One of Goulston and Goldberg’s primary objectives is to convince their readers that they can achieve their goals, whatever they may be, by “conquering” self-defeaters that include procrastination, hugging a grudge, tolerating what should be intolerable behavior by others, repeating the same mistakes, quitting too soon, quitting too late (what the Lakota aphorism characterizes as “feeding hay to a dead horse”), and offering unsolicited and unwelcome advice. Goulston and Goldberg devote a separate chapter to these and other troublemakers.

In Chapter 33, for example, they discuss “Letting Others Control Your Life.” This reminds me of the core insight in Ernest Becker’s book, Denial of Death. Becker acknowledges that everyone dies eventually (he died of cancer two months before the book was published) but asserted that that there is one form of death that can be denied: “That which occurs when we become wholly preoccupied with fulfilling the expectations of others.”

The observations are anchored in recurrent real-world situations, the advice is rock-solid, and the co-authors faith in their reader’s ability to conquer self-defeatism is complete. For many people, this may well be the most valuable self-help book they ever read…if (HUGE “if”) they use it to help themselves.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010 Posted by | Bob's blog entries | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Outliers – Malcolm Gladwell’s Thanksgiving Paean

Back in my preaching days, I had the challenge of preaching a thanksgiving sermon each year.  I loved the challenge – there is, always, so much to be thankful for.

I remember my favorite Thanksgiving “story.”  It was told by the great British Preacher W. E. Sangster.  He told of one woman who simply refused to be grateful for anything.  He pushed her, and prodded her, demanding that she find one thing she was grateful for.  She finally said:  “I suppose I’m grateful that my last two teeth hit each other.”

Well, there is one recent, wildly popular book, that is, in reality, one long Thanksgving paean.  It is Outliers:  The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell.  He demonstrates that success is the result of so many different influences; the 10,000 hours of practice (deliberate practice); culture, family.  But he ends the book with his own grateful remembrance of where his success came from.  You’ll need to read the last chapter on your own to get the full context of these thoughts.  Here’s the really terrific last paragraph of his book:

My great-great-great-grandmother was bought at Alligator Pond.  That act, in turn, gave her son, John Ford, the privilege of a skin color that spared him a life of slavery.  The culture of possibility that Daisy Ford embraced and put to use so brilliantly on behalf of her daughters was passed on to her by the peculiarities of the West Indian social structure.  And my mother’s education was the product of the riots of 1937 and the industriousness of Mr. Chance.  These were history’s gifts to my family — and if the resources of that grocer, the fruits of those riots, the possibilities of that culture, and the privileges of that skin tone had been extended to others, how many more would now live a life of fulfillment, in an beautiful house high on a hill?

“history’s gifts to my family…” — Happy Thanksgiving!


Wednesday, November 24, 2010 Posted by | Randy's blog entries | , , , | Leave a comment

The Perpetual Recession: Productivity Up, Jobs Not Up – Where Will The Jobs Be?

Let’s get more innovative.  Let’s get more productive.  Productivity – up, up, up!  Let’s find a way for each worker to produce more.  Let’s find a way for our company to produce more in fewer total work hours.  This is good for the company, this is good for our stockholders.  This is good, this is always good!  And, let’s get even more productive next year, and the year after that, and the year after that…


This is very good — except when it is bad.

The good is obvious.  People, companies, are more productive.  This is bad because, the more productive each worker is, the fewer workers needed to do the same amount of work.  Thus, no new jobs are created, because we can do more with fewer people.

Thus…the perpetual recession.

That is the key line in an article on, Bernanke Employment Goal Elusive as Profits Bring No Jobs by Craig Torres and Anthony Feld.  And it gives more insight re. the ongoing dilemma of:  where will the jobs be? Here are excerpts:

Not far from where Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke grew up, a revolution inside a Campbell Soup Co. plant explains why U.S. corporations are piling up profits — with little need to hire more people.

Workers such as “Big John” Filmore, a 28-year Campbell veteran, huddle every day with management in situation rooms before their shifts to find ways to save money for the company. Rising productivity is helping boost profit margins here in Maxton, North Carolina, where 858 workers turn out a billion meals a year, and at most of the 243 non-financial companies in the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index with rising profit margins.

Companies slashed 8.5 million jobs during the worst recession since the Great Depression, while also slowing capital investment plans. Campbell, the world’s largest soup maker, DuPont Co., the third-biggest U.S. chemical maker, and United Parcel Service Inc., the world’s largest package-delivery business, are asking workers to help save cash by working smarter with existing technology. A potential cost: Efficiency gains reduce the chances recession-casualty jobs will come back.

“When the productivity growth comes, then watch out because that is when companies start not needing so much labor,” Edmund Phelps, a Columbia University economist and Nobel laureate, said in an interview.

Some 142 non-financial companies in the S&P 500 had improvements in operating margins of three percentage points or more from the final three months of 2007, when the previous expansion peaked, compared with the most recent quarter, according to data compiled by Bloomberg as of yesterday.

Firing and Hiring

Yet data released Nov. 18 by the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that while firing has slowed, hiring hasn’t picked up. Job gains from new or expanding businesses were 6.1 million in the first quarter, the lowest quarterly increase since the recession ended. Job losses from closing or shrinking businesses fell to 6.4 million, the smallest on BLS records going back to 1992.

“We’ve seen remarkable productivity gains in the last year or so in the U.S. economy,” Bernanke told Congress’s Joint Economic Committee on April 14. “We don’t anticipate productivity growth will continue at that rate going forward, but if it does, then that may reduce the number of workers that firms need to bring back in order to meet demand.”

Bernanke and fellow Fed policy makers launched a $600- billion second round of Treasury bond purchases November 3 to boost growth and lower unemployment, which has remained above 9 percent throughout the recovery. The jobless rate held at 9.6 percent in October, a sign that companies still have little need to absorb workers who need a job.

The Minimum

The economy grew at a 2.5 percent annual rate in the third quarter. That’s the minimum needed to keep unemployment from rising further, according to estimates by Fed officials this month.

U.S. corporations “live in a perpetual state of recession” because of fierce global competition, said Tom Schneider, chief executive officer of Washington-based consultant Restructuring Associates Inc., which helps boost efficiency at such companies as London and Rotterdam-based Unilever, the world’s second-largest consumer-goods maker. They have “no expectation that this is a short-term blip.”

As we try to figure out the direction of this still fragile recovery, this is the challenge that perplexes so many.



Wednesday, November 24, 2010 Posted by | Randy's blog entries | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment



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