Political Animal

2002 BOOK REVIEW….Recommended books from

2002 BOOK REVIEW….Recommended books from my 2002 reading:

  • A Beautiful Mind, by Sylvia Nasar. I read the book after I saw the movie and was genuinely shocked that the movie was essentially completely fabricated: aside from the fact that it’s about a mathematician who goes crazy and then eventually wins a Nobel Prize, there’s barely a single thing in the movie that’s actually taken from John Nash’s life. The movie was good, but it was fiction; the book is also good, but it’s fact. And the final chapter, which is a capsule history of the Nobel Prize in Economics, is genuinely entertaining.

  • To Say Nothing of the Dog, by Connie Willis. I like Connie Willis’ fiction and I went on a Connie Willis binge around the middle of the year. Of the three or four books I read, this one was the best, a witty time travel story about Victorian England.

  • Founding Brothers, by Joseph Ellis. This is a gem, a short but incisive book about the six most important shapers of America during the 18th century: Washington, Franklin, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Hamilton. Terrific stuff.

  • Nickel And Dimed, by Barbara Ehrenreich. A middle class writer works at three minimum wage jobs for a month each just to see what it’s like. As with 1998’s The Corner, with its ground level look at the inner city drug culture, this book is invaluable as a portrait of what life really feels like for the working poor. It may not change your mind on matters of policy, but you should read it anyway just so you have a feel for the reality of the subject, not just the statistics and the talking points.

  • Venus Envy, by Jon Wertheim. An inside look at the dysfunctional women’s tennis tour. Even if you don’t like tennis, you might still like Wertheim’s book purely as an anthropological exercise.

  • The Threatening Storm, by Kenneth Pollack. The most important book to read about the situation in Iraq, whether or not you’re in favor of ousting Saddam Hussein. My detailed review is here.

Honorable mention: The Honors Class, by Benjamin Yandell, a comprehensive review of Hilbert’s 23 problems. If you don’t know who Hilbert is, don’t bother with this, but if you do and you enjoy math, it’s a surprisingly readable summary of a very complex tale.


STRATEGY VS. EXECUTION….IT’S EXECUTION BY A LANDSLIDE!….Charles Murtaugh, in his year-end wrap-up, recommends this article from the New Yorker titled “The Talent Myth.”

It’s a good piece and makes a point that too few people pay attention to these days: it’s important to hire smart people, but it’s more important to have a good organization and good processes. The problem these days is that most people recoil instinctively from the idea of “process,” mentally conflating it with “bureaucracy” and banishing it to the same final resting place as other hopelessly unfashionable ideas like, for example, not wearing pajamas to work or employing managers who actually tell people what to do.

It’s true that when you put processes in place you have to avoid the temptation to let them get out of control. Never be afraid to suggest that some particular bad behavior is not egregious enough to be worth creating a new policy about.

But: good execution is more important than good ideas, and while your company’s geniuses might come up with the lion’s share of the ideas, it’s the other poor shlubs that have to make it work. These people (and you and I probably among them, if we’re honest with ourselves) need direction, they need help, and they need guidance and support. In short, since they aren’t geniuses, they need an organization with definite ideas about how to get things done.

There are lots of unsexy but important processes that are critical to making a company work: budgeting, product planning, hiring policies, sales administration, pricing discipline, and on and on. They may sometimes be boring, but you ignore them at your peril.


TIME MAGAZINE: PAWN OF THE REPUBLICAN CENTRAL COMMITTEE?….With all due respect to my fellow liberals, can someone tell me why the lefty blogosphere has been obsessing over this Time/CNN poll showing that Bush’s approval numbers have now dropped to 55%? I mean, it did appear in Time magazine, and as much as we internet-savvy bloggers hate to admit it, the dead-tree version of Time still has a circulation about a gazillion times higher than the entire blogosphere put together, so it’s not like there was some kind of sinister conspiracy to hide this.

Besides, Bush’s approval numbers have been on a very steady downward slide ever since they peaked after 9/11, and you barely even needed to take an actual poll to figure out that the number this month would be around 55%. This is not exactly “man bites dog” material.

Or was it just that the week after Christmas is a slow news week?

POSTSCRIPT: Conservatives are pissed off at Time too for the effrontery of failing to name Bush their Person of the Year for two straight years! Man, these guys can’t please anyone, can they?