Book Club,Thoughts — December 31, 2011

My apologies for not sharing any books these past few months. I’ve been reading on a Kindle. And Amazon, it seems, doesn’t agree that second hand books are worth handing down to the digital age.

There is a tip I’d like to share. Something that has worked very well for me is to identify a writer I love. Read everything they have written. Read what they read. And continue ad infinitum.

For the last five years I’ve pretty much exclusively read fiction. Dostoyevsky to Kafta to Kundera to Cervantas and now Vargas Llosa. But I could not resist reading Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs (I highly recommend it!).

Since then I continued with Einstein. And currently Benjamin Franklin. But back to the first two…

Einstein and Jobs are connected in more ways than dying and being born (respectively) in the same year.  I’ve wanted to write about my favorite connection for some time. Since today is the last day of 2011, it probably explains my sense of urgency.

I remember watching Jonathan Ive’s speech at “Celebrating Steve” and being moved to tears by what he said:

Now while hopefully the work appeared inevitable. Appeared simple, and easy, it really cost. It cost us all, didn’t it?

But you know what? It cost him most. He cared the most. He worried the most deeply. He constantly questioned, ‘Is this good enough? Is this right?’

And despite all his successes, all his achievements, he never presumed, he never assumed, that we would get there in the end. And when the ideas didn’t come, and when the prototypes failed, it was with great intent, with faith, he decided to believe we would eventually make something great.

But it wasn’t until Einstein’s biography that I started thinking about caring in the large scope of life. Physicist Lee Smolin described Einstein as, “a gardener weeding a flower bed.” He wrote:

I believe what allowed Einstein to achieve so much was primarily a moral quality. He simply cared far more than most of his colleagues that the laws of physics have to explain everything in nature coherently and consistently.

Care about what you do. Sweat the small stuff. Charles Eames once said, “The details are not the details. They are the product”. I believe this to my core. My New Year’s Resolution is simple: To care even more.

Happy New Year!

Feynman Lectures on Computing

Book Club — February 21, 2011

Over Chinese New Year I rediscovered and old favorite that I want to share with you today. Feynman Lectures on Computation, while not a novel (I said I would share novels) is so good that I don’t want to leave it sitting on my bookshelf any longer.

From 1983 to 1986, Richard Feynman taught a course at Caltech called “Potentialities and Limitations of Computing Machines.” Although computing during that time is quite different than today, most of the material is timeless and explained in the brilliant, yet whimsical, manner that Feynman is so famous for.

Take for example, where Feynman first introduces the concept of the Turing machine:

Turing’s idea was to make a machine that was kind of a analogue of a mathematician who has to follow a set of rules. The idea is that the mathematician has a long strip of paper broken up into squares, and what he sees puts him in some state of mind which determines what he writes in the next square. So imagine the guy’s brain having lots of different possible states which are mixed up and changed by looking at the strip of paper. After thinking along these lines and abstracting a bit, Turing came up with a kind of machine which is referred to as – surprise, surprise – a Turing machine. We will see that these machines are horribly inefficient and slow – so much so that no one would ever waste their time building one except for amusement  – but that, if we are patient with them, they can do wonderful things.

What can you expect from this book? Well, Feynman himself explains it best: “These lectures are about what we can and can’t do with machines today, and why.” They are told in the style of imagining “you are explaining your ideas to your former smart, but ignorant self, at the beginning if your studies!” Absolutely fun and refreshing!

If you would like to read this book, tell three people about my company’s latest project, WikiReader, and then send me an email. Before next week, I’ll chose a name by random, and send the winner my book.

Shipping, anywhere in the world, is on me.


Book Club — October 22, 2010

Casey Reas, Chandler McWilliams, and LUST released a new book entitled “Form+Code”:

It’s a look at computational aesthetics in the fields of design, art, and architecture. Specially the book is about how software allows for new “forms” to be created in the visual arts.

For some of us, coding is second nature, just another form of thinking. But for many, it’s completely foreign – more incomprehensible than Shakespeare. Ever since I learned BASIC on my first computer, I’ve been magnetically drawn to the visual side of computation. “Why code?” was a question friends frequently asked. I was never able to really express why. Even though, like a learning a second language, I always believed it was important for personal growth – especially for those in visual / conceptual fields.

I love what this book has to say:

Learning to program and to engage the computer more directly with code opens the possibility of not only cresting tools, but also systems, environments, and entirely new modes of expression. It is here that the computer ceases to be a tool and instead becomes a medium. Learning to program and to engage the computer more directly with codeopens the possibility of not only cresting tools, but also systems, environments, and entirely new modes of expression. It is here that the computer ceases to be tool and instead becomes a medium.

“Code+Form” is full color and bursting with examples. Take Flatware: A new set of flatware designed, “by mutating, blending, and evolving a base form” for example:

Recursion is topic of great personal interest. Here’s a section from the book:

And Flight Patterns, by Aaron Koblin, is breathtakingly gorgeous illustration plotting the paths of aircraft across the United States:

If you would like to read this book, tell three people about my company’s latest project, WikiReader, and then send me an email. Before next week, I’ll chose a name by random, and send the winner my book.

Shipping, anywhere in the world, is on me.

Peter Drucker: “Innovation and Entrepreneurship”

Book Club — September 26, 2010

This week’s book is a favorite of mine that was super inspiring when I started my first company:

Peter Drucker wrote “Innovation and Entrepreneurship” in 1985. He wrote it as his “manifesto” for the New Business Development Group. And, at the time, it was probably the first systematic attempt to explain innovation and entrepreneurship as a discipline.

I especially love his description of incongruities:

An incongruity is a discrepancy, a dissonance, between what is and what “ought” to be, or between what is and what everybody assumes it to be. It bespeaks an underlying “fault.” Such a fault is an invitation to innovate. It creates an instability in which quite minor efforts can move large masses and bring about a restructuring of the economic or social configuration.

The changes that underlie incongruity are changes ”within” an industry, a market, a process. The incongruity is thus clearly visible to the people within or close to the industry, market, or process; it is directly in front of their eyes. Yet it is often overlooked by the insiders, who tend to take it for granted.

Drucker’s focus on the difference between reality and perception is especially important. Many times I have failed to close this gap myself.

He continues with an classic example to illustrate his point:

The television in Japan was both an example of the unexpected success but also an example of the incongruity between perceived customer values and customer expectations. Matsushita (better know by its brand names Panasonic and National) owes its rise to a willingness to run with the unexpected success – the television set – in Japan.

Long before a famous Japanese industrialist told his American audience that the poor in his country would not buy a TV set because they could not afford it, the poor in the United States and Europe had already shown that TV satisfies expectations which have little to do with traditional economies. But this highly intelligent Japanese simply could not conceive that for customers – and especially poor customers – the TV set is not just a “thing.” It represents access to a new world; access, perhaps, to a whole new life.

Matsushita, however, was intelligent enough to accept that the Japanese farmers apparently did not know that they were too poor for television. What they knew was what the television offered them, for the first time, access to a big world. They could not afford television sets, but they were prepared to buy them anyhow and pay for them. Toshiba and Hitachi made better sets at the time, only they showed them on the Ginza in Tokyo and in the big-city department stores, making it pretty clear that farmers were not particularly welcome in such elegant surroundings.

Matshita when to the farmers and sold its televisions door-to-door, something no one in Japan had ever done before for anything more expensive than cotton pants or aprons.

If you would like to read this book, tell three people about my company’s latest project, WikiReader, and then send me an email. Before next week, I’ll chose a name from random, and send the winner my book.

Shipping, anywhere in the world, is on me.

Hemingway: The Old Man and the Sea

Book Club — September 19, 2010

My next book to giveaway is Ernest Hemingway‘s “The Old Man and the Sea“:

One of those rare novels where not a single word could have been removed. Hemingway received the Nobel Prize for Literature (largely) for this work of art. It’s truly a wonderful tale, that transcends time, about Santiago – an aging cuban fisherman – his struggle with a giant marlin, and his love affair with the ocean.

The best way for me to share this book is to quote some passages:

“Most people were heartless about turtles because a turtle’s heart will beat for hours after it has been cut up and butchered. But the old man thought, I have such a heart too.”


“Then he began to pity the great fish that he had hooked. He is wonderful and strange and who knows how old he is, he thought. Never have I had such a strong fish nor one who acted so strangely. Perhaps he is too wise to jump. He could ruin me by jumping or by a wild rush. But perhaps he has been hooked many times before and he knows that this is how he should make his fight. He cannot know it is only one man against him, nor that it is an old man. But what a great fish he is and what will he bring in the market if the flesh is good. He took the bait like a male and he pulls like a male and his fight has no panic in it. I wonder if he has plans or if he is just as desperate as I am?”

And my favorite:

“Fish,’ he said softly, aloud, ‘I’ll stay with you until I am dead.”

If you are an avid reader, or if you have never truly enjoyed a great novel – this is the book for you. Short and sweet. A contemporary classic that will forever be know as one of the most simple, powerful examples of the English Language.

If you would like to read this book, tell three people about my company’s latest project, WikiReader, and then send me an email. Before next week, I’ll chose a name from random, and send the winner my book.

Shipping, anywhere in the world, is on me.

Congrats to Ben. Your name was drawn at random. The book’s in the mail!

Kundera’s Immortality

Book Club — August 8, 2010

Immortality” by Milan Kundera is one of my all-time favorites novels:

Challenging, witty, provoking, but most of all – absolutely brilliant writing; “Immortality” is a unique form of the novel. It’s the only book I can remember reading twice. Each time I walked away a changed person. It begins with a casual gesture of a woman to her swimming instructor. That gesture creates a character in the mind of Kundera whose own person story is wound together with that woman into a novel.

Death and immortality are at the core. They, “form an inseparable pair more perfect than Marx and Engels, Romeo and Juliet, Laurel and Hardy,” explains Kundera. To this he overlays a fascinating sub-story of Goethe and Hemingway. They meet in heaven and debate the reason for their fame. Is it their books or their own characters? “Instead of reading my books, they’re writing books about me,” Hemingway says. “That’s immortality,” replies Goethe. “Immortality means eternal trial.”

Kundera’s style of fiction is rare; Inspired by the philosophy of Nietzsche and the great (Kundera thinks the greatest) novelist Miguel de Cervantes, Kundera writes by layering the lives and loves of multiple third-person characters – essentially all figments of his imagination – with that of his own dialog, in the first person. What emerges is a beautifully rich array of interwoven stories spanning sometimes vastly different time periods. A result that is equal parts poetry with magic.

Here is one such passage, a sub-story within the main story, where Kundera’s own character is having a dinner conversation with a friend (Professor Avenarius). His friend asks:

“What are you writing about these days, anyway?”
“That’s impossible to recount.” [relies Kundera]
“What a pity.”
“Not at all. An advantage. The present era grabs everything that was written in order to transform it into films, TV programs, or cartoons. What is essential in a novel is precisely what can only be expressed in a novel, and so every adaptation contains nothing but the nonessential. If a person is still crazy enough to write novels nowadays and wants to protect them, he has to write them in a such a way that they cannot be adapted, in other words, in such a way that they cannot be retold.”

“When I heard you,” Professor Avenarius said uneasily, “I just hope that your novel won’t turn out to be a bore.”
“Do you think that everything that is not a mad chase after a final resolution is a bore? As you eat this wonderful duck, are you bored?” Are you rushing toward a goal? On the contrary, you want the duck to enter into you as slowly as possible and you never want its taste to end. A novel shouldn’t be like a bicycle race but like a banquet of many courses… I am really looking to Part 6 [of this novel]. A completely new character will enter the novel. And at the end of that part he will disappear without a trace. He causes nothing and leaves no effects. That is precisely what I like about him. Part 6 will be a novel within a novel, as well as the saddest erotic story I have ever written.”

This, I believe, illustrates the essence of Kundera’s craft. Tackling profound issues of human identity, while at the same time playing with ambiguity, paradox, and healthy doses of irony is his gift. Once, in an rare interview, Kundera explained, “The novelist teaches the reader to comprehend the world as a question. There is wisdom and tolerance in that attitude. In a world built on sacrosanct certainties the novel is dead.”

Looking at the world through the eyes of a question, I truly believe, is an incredible skill! Kundera has mastered the art of the novel. If you enjoy reading, I strongly encourage you to read his novels. And “Immortality” is a excellent starting point.

If you would like to read this book, tell three people about my company’s latest project, WikiReader, and then send me an email. Before next week, I’ll chose a name from random, and send the winner my book.

Shipping, anywhere in the world, is on me.

James Dyson and Gladwell’s Outliers

Book Club — July 20, 2010

After traveling a bit too much in the past weeks, I’m back in Taiwan, well rested and super inspired to resume this weekly book club.

In the air, I read an interview with one of my heros, Sir James Dyson:


Dyson is best known for his colorful bagless vacuum cleaners, which work on the principles of cyclonic separation. When asked about his most important lesson in life, he replied:

It can take a very long time to develop interesting products and get them right. But our society has an instant-gratification thing. We admire instant brilliance, effortless brilliance. I think quite the reverse. You should admire the person who perseveres and slogs through and gets there in the end.

I love this quote! Yes, it’s wisdom that – 50 years ago – would have been taken as common sense. But things are different now. Instant gratification is getting the better us. It’s seeping into our industries, destroying our economies, and wrecking havoc on our core values. So many of us succumb to the unfortunate idea that we live in a time where the rules of the past don’t apply. I, too, have been convinced that changes like the Internet mean real value can be created overnight. But I cannot accept this anymore. I do not believe in instant or effortless brilliance. Behind every lasting success is an immense amount of hard work, failures, and above all, a relentless desire to go forward, no matter what happens. It takes an enormous amount of time and courage to reach a “breakthrough”.

Dyson built 5,127 prototypes before he got his vacuum cleaner right. And then he was rejected by all the major manufacturers when he tried to license them his invention. Discouraged but not distraught, he decided to start his own company. That took him 15 years and nearly his entire savings. But he persevered. Today, he has the best selling vacuum cleaner (by revenue). One of the most popular brands in the market. And is one of the richest individuals in the UK.

Read the daily news and seldom will you hear the true story of success. You’ll find the overnight wonder. The company that came out of nowhere. The business person who made a billion dollars – entirely with their own hands. Worse than untrue, I believe propagating these myths does real damage to the values of our society. Convinced that this is reality, we become disillusioned by anything slower than real-time. We take failure as a sign to change jobs instead of an opportunity to learn and grow. We loose our tenacity and ability to concentrate for extended periods of time on difficult problems. We choose to enter professions where trading is rewarded far more than building long-term value for society.

Thinking about all of this reminded me of a book I read a while back, entitled, “Outliers: The Story of Success“, by Malcolm Gladwell:

Outliers is Gladwell’s study of success. It’s a story told, in my opinion, the right way. From the Beatles to Bill Gates, New York Lawyers to Silicon Valley Billionaires, Gladwell argues that hard work and the right environment, is far more important that just plain intelligence and ambition in explaining success.

Central to the book’s theme is the following question: “Why do some people succeed, living remarkably productive and impactful lives, while so many more never reach their potential?”. Gladwell lays out a convincing case for how successful people rise in our society. His book is fun and insightful. Definitely worth reading. Today, I just want to share one quote with you, since I believe it best captures Gladwell’s point, without spoiling the plot:

The lesson here is very simple. But it is striking how often it is overlooked. We are so caught in the myths of the best and the brightest and the self-made that we think outliers spring naturally from the earth. We look at the young Bill Gates and marvel that our world allowed that thirteen-year-old to become a fabulously successful entrepreneur. But that’s the wrong lesson. Our world only allowed one thirteen-yar-old unlimited access to a time sharing terminal in 1968. If a million teenagers had been given the same opportunity, how many more Microsofts would we have today? To build a better world we need to replace the patchwork of lucky breaks and arbitrary advantages that today determine success – the fortunate birth dates and the happy accidents of history – with a society that provides opportunities for all.

We study the sciences to better understand our universe. We’re required to read the classics to experience humanity’s prowess. Why aren’t we taught the journeys of success to learn how to repeat them? Why don’t we elevate those, as Dyson so bluntly states, that “persevered and slogged” and got there? Why don’t we work to provide the environments that mold and shape outliers? Like Gladwell and Dyson, I believe our future depends on it.

If any of this interests you, and you would like to read this book, tell three people about my company’s latest project, WikiReader, and then send me an email. Before next week, I’ll chose a name from random, and send the winner my book.

Shipping, anywhere in the world, is on me.

Winner: Martin Holec. Congrats! You’ll receive an email from me shortly… enjoy your new book!

The Magic Numbers of Dr. Matrix

Book Club — June 28, 2010

This week’s book is one of my all-time favorites – The Magic Numbers of Dr. Matrix by Martin Gardner:

It’s a wonderful collection of Gardner’s Scientific American columns spanning his 30 year relationship with Dr. Irving Joshua Matrix. For those of you who haven’t heard of Dr. Matrix, he’s considered by many to be the greatest numerologist of all time. (He was the first to reveal that HAL (from 2001: Space Odyssey) is obtained by shifting each letter of IBM back one letter in the alphabet.)

Filled with predictions, word play, number theory, and entertaining stories of an eccentric mathematical genius, whether you love numbers or not, this book is packed with fun. Take for example, their first meeting in 1960. Dr. Matrix says to Gardner:

“You’ve heard, perhaps, the theory that Shakespeare worked secretly on part of the King James translation of the Bible?”

I shook my head.

“To a numerologist, the theory’s not in doubt. If you turn to Psalms 46 you’ll find that its 46th word is SHAKE. Count back to the 46th word from the end of the same psalm and you reach the word SPEAR.”

“Why 46?” I asked, smiling.

“Because,” said Dr. Matrix, “when the King James Authorized Version was completed in 1610, Shakespeare was exactly 46 years old.”

The book is loaded with all sorts of riddles, some simple, some extremely difficult. Answers are in the back. Here’s the entire text of a postcard sent to Gardner by Dr. Matrix’s daughter, Iva, after having been out of touch for years.

A, B, . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

If you struggle with that for a while, you’ll probably crack it as, “Long time no see.”

Names, Dr. Matrix says, exert a strong influence over one’s interests. For this point, he tells stories about all kinds of people. There’s J.J.C Smart, the smartest philosopher in Australia, and Kuan-han Sun, a Chinese physicist doing research on solar winds. Oh! Sex Education was quite the controversial book written by Mary Breasted. Anton Horner was the solo horn player with the Philadelphia Orchestra for twenty-eight years. L. Lines wrote a book called Solid Geometry.

Here’s one of my favorite word patterns; the traditional spelling rule is “i before e except after c, or when sounding as a, as in NEIGHBOR and WEIGH.” This rule is broken twice by ANCIENT SCIENCE. Then along came Albert Einstein, who broke many basic laws of ancient science. His last name also violates the rule twice.

If any of this interests you, and you would like to read this book, tell three people about my company’s latest project, WikiReader, and then send me an email. Before next week, I’ll chose a name from random, and send the winner my book.

Shipping, anywhere in the world, is on me.

Winner: Tim Warren. Congrats! You’ll receive an email from me shortly… enjoy your new book!

Brave New World

Book Club — June 21, 2010

This week’s book is Brave New World by Aldous Huxley:

A dystopian novel predicting the future under the extreme dehumanizing effects of scientific and mass-production “progress”.  And I must begin by saying that, as a work of literature (for me at least) it’s extremely hard to dissect! Like many great thinkers, far ahead of their time, Huxley novel received nearly universal criticism from his contemporary critics. Now, it is considered one of the greatest novels of the 20th century.

632 years after Henry Ford first mass-produced the Model T, begins Huxley’s story. Stability of the State (called the World State in the novel) is maintained though biological engineering and psychological conditional. Citizens are not born, they’re “hatched” to fill specific societal roles. Everything and everyone is planned, controlled, and exploited as a form of State utility.

Here’s Mustapha Mond, the “Controller” of the Western European zone, describing the World State:

“In a properly organized society like ours, nobody has any opportunities for being noble or heroic. Conditions have got to be thoroughly unstable before the occasion can arise. When there are wars, where there are divided allegiances, where there are temptations to be resisted, objects of love to be fought for or defended – there, obviously, nobility and heroism have some sense. But there aren’t any wars nowadays. The greatest care is taken to prevent you from loving anyone too much. There’s no such thing as a divided allegiance; you’re so conditioned that you can’t help doing what you ought to do.

Beyond the confines of the World State, exists reservations with populations of “savages” – those few whom still engage in love, child birth, and die of old age. At its core, Brave New World, is a tale of one Savage, named John, that is brought back into the World State and becomes deeply disillusioned. Both a satirical look and a blueprint of a possible future, we a made witness to a world run amuck with totalitarianism and scientific propaganda.

Take this passage, for example, where the Savage is speaking to a Controller:

“Isn’t there something in living dangerously?”
“There’s a great deal in it,” the Controller replied. “Men and women must have their adrenals stimulated from time to time.”
“What?” questioned the Savage, uncomprehending.
“It’s one of the conditions of perfect health. That’s why we’ve made the V.P.S. treatments compulsory.”
“Violent Passion Surrogate. Regularly once a month. We flood the whole system with adrenin. It’s the complete physiological equivalent of fear and rage. All the tonic effects of murdering Desdemona and being murdered by Othello, without any of the inconveniences.”

“But I like the inconveniences.”

“We don’t,” said the Controller. “We prefer to do things comfortably.”

“But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.”

“In fact,” said Mustapha Mond, “you’re claiming the right to be unhappy.”
“All right then,” said the Savage defiantly, “I’m claiming the right to be unhappy.”

I find Brave New World fascinating perhaps because Huxley is a such deeply pessimistic man and I am such the optimist. His morbid fixation with the economic realities of his time (1930s) and he deep rejection of the theories of J.M. Keynes makes for an incredibly thought provoking view of future societies. Especially for somebody like myself, who would be a contributor to his dim view of the future. But what exactly his view of the future is, after reading this book, I feel is quite ambiguous. Satire and political commentary are simply woven so tightly together that I struggle to unwind the difference. But that’s exactly why the book is so powerful and exiting to read!

If any of this interests you, and you would like to read this book, tell three people about my company’s latest project, WikiReader, and then send me an email. Before next week, I’ll chose a name from random, and send the winner my book.

Shipping, anywhere in the world, is on me.

Winner: Mark McClellan. Congrats! You’ll receive an email from me shortly… enjoy your new book!

Ingenious Gadgets

Book Club — June 14, 2010

This week’s book, “Ingenious Gadgets” by Maurice Collins, is just pure and whimsical fun:

Fascinated by eccentric contraptions powered by anything other than electricity, Collins has been collecting “gadgets” for over 30 years. Most items span the time period starting from the Great Exhibition of 1851 to the Festival of Britain in 1951. Organized in categories with names like “The Working Day” to “The Stuff of Life” to “Body and Soul” and more, this book with inspire and provoke laughter – in equally heavy doses.

Here are three of my favorites:

1. Clockwork fly scarer
With a “wing” span of one meter (3ft), this clockwork propeller revolves at a very slow pace over the dining table to scare away flies. The large spring, when fully wound, has enough energy to keep revolving for 15 minutes!

2. Sight restorer
A late 19th century gadget that proclaims to increase your vision. All you have to do is apply the two cups against the eyes, press the central air puffer and the resulting massage would do the trick. The instructions also suggest that no excessive drinking or eating and plenty of sleep should occur at the same time as the treatment.

3. Bread cutter
This gadget, from the US Great Depression era of the 1930s, was created to help money go a bit further. Place an already thin slice of bread into this cutter and it will cut it in half again. Ingenious, albeit a tad depressing…

What’s the fundamental question of the items in his collection? Does it solve an everyday problem making a task simpler, quicker or easier. Collins is especially keen on gadgets that perform their function better than those sold in the 21st century that do the same thing. All the items in his collection are a testament to those creative minds that spend their time and money trying to solve everyday problems.

If any of this interests you, and you would like to read this book, tell three people about my company’s latest project, WikiReader, and then send me an email. Before next week, I’ll chose a name from random, and send the winner my book.

Shipping, anywhere in the world, is on me.

Winner: Abdullah Tammour. Congrats! You’ll receive an email from me shortly… enjoy your new book!

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