Archive for the ‘Book’ Category

Mega Disasters: The Science of Predicting the Next Catastrophe

Sunday, October 25th, 2015
Mega Disasters

Mega Disasters

Florin Diacu possesses a rare talent. He holds a PhD in Mathematics from the University of Heidelberg in Germany and is a professor of mathematics and former director of the Pacific Institute for the Mathematical Sciences at the University of Victoria in Canada. And he has written a book that tells the story of how scientists and mathematicians have worked to advance the frontiers of disaster prediction that is completely engaging and informative to the lay-person. Read Mega-Disasters, published by Princeton University Press, and you will be a more discerning viewer of the Weather Channel or CNN the next time a major storm breaks. The book is organized into nine chapters:

  1. Walls of Water: Tsunamis
  2. Land in Upheaval: Earthquakes
  3. Chimneys of Hell: Volcanic Eruptions
  4. Giant Whirlwinds: Hurricanes, Cyclones and Typhoons
  5. Mutant Seasons: Rapid Climate Change
  6. Earth in Collision: Cosmic Impacts
  7. Economic Breakdown: Financial Crashes
  8. Tiny Killers: Pandemics
  9. Models and Predictions: How Far Can We Go?

I loved this book on so many levels. First, Professor Diacu conveys a tone of compassion for disaster victims, even as he explains the science of anticipating the frequency and severity of storms. He dedicated his book “to all those who try to make the world a safer place.” Second, and this comes from the insurance geek in me, he explains how a language convention for actuarial shorthand, describing 1-in-100 year events, is misinterpreted by those who don’t understand that a probability event does not address how events are clustered. When a severe earthquake strikes, it does not mean that we are safe for the next 99 years. Finally, he takes a comprehensive view of risk, addressing threats of pandemic illnesses and economic collapses. I also appreciate his engaging writing style. As the sustainability of our societies becomes increasingly dependent of our ability to cope with severe disasters, this book is relevant to everyone. I highly recommend it.

Book of the Week: Climate Capitalism

Sunday, September 13th, 2015
Climate Capitalism

Climate Capitalism

I just finished reading Climate Capitalism, a book that presents the opportunities afforded by entrepreneurial solutions to achieving a low-carbon economy. I particularly appreciate that the authors addressed the importance of small businesses, as “the economic engine of any country, in North America generating more than half of non-farm private gross domestic product.”  They support this claim with familiar figures courtesy of the U.S. Small Business Administration: small businesses represent 99.7 per cent of all employer firms, employing nearly 60 million workers, or about half of all private-sector employees. In the past decade alone, small businesses have created 60 to 80 per cent of net new jobs each year. The authors recognize the importance of small businesses in efforts to reduce our carbon footprint in writing (page 39) that small businesses “confront correspondingly promising opportunities and bear significant responsibility for global sustainability.” But small businesses generally lack the resources to hire chief sustainability officers or undertake the measures pursued by Fortune-500 companies to address climate change.

Fortunately, the authors present pragmatic ways small businesses can contribute to global solutions for climate sustainability. They write (page 39) “Energy efficiency remains one of the best investments that a small business owner can make.” They cite examples of small businesses that reduced their energy bills by two-thirds employing such simple measures as replacing incandescent lights with compact fluorescent bulbs or holding meetings in rooms lit by natural light. They also show how the use of power strips prevents appliances from consuming electricity even when they are switched off, a wasteful practice known as “phantom load”. I was stunned to read that Americans spend more money supplying electrical powers to DVD players when they are turned off than when they are actually in use. The authors demonstrate how small businesses implementing weatherization programs (such as caulking windows and sealing leaky ducts) have realized a 40 per cent return on their investments. Programmable thermostats typically return 30 per cent in annual savings. This book presents practical steps small businesses can take to achieve a sustainable environment and I highly recommend it.

Data Science for Business

Sunday, September 6th, 2015

Data Science for BusinessI am catching up on a little light Labor Day week-end reading and Data Science for Business does not disappoint. Nearly every aspect of business provides opportunities for data collection: from customer sales and marketing to finance and supply chain management. And the Internet gives us almost unlimited access to external data, from stock prices, to airline flights to industry news. Data science is the methodology for extracting useful information and knowledge from the data. Retailers such as Amazon have figured out how to increase sales with effective data science by suggesting additional purchases to consumers based on their known preferences and tastes. Airlines use data science to optimize revenue yield by pricing flights with analytically rigorous methods.

All of which explains why data science is one of the hottest fields today, with the consulting form McKinsey and Company estimating that by 2018, the United States will face a shortage of 140,000 to 190,000 workers with the deep analytical skills needed to extract useful information from raw data. McKinsey further projects that an additional 1.5 million business people will need data analytic skills to know how to implement the findings of data scientists across multiple areas of the business.  So I wanted to learn more. This is a great book, although contrary to the authors’ disclaimer, it does presume at least an intermediate knowledge of statistics.

My two favorite sections of the book were, predictably, the example of data analytics developed by Wal-Mart to predict consumer demand for specific supplies as Hurricane Frances approached Florida’s Atlantic coast (answer: strawberry Pop-Tarts).  I also loved the sample proposals presented in the two Appendices to the book. They can serve as a template for sourcing and reviewing work from data science providers. The Fortune-500 is making extensive use of data analytics, but as apps and tools become widely available, soon small business owners will have to become more sophisticated about data science. I strongly recommend this book to small business owners who want to get ahead of the curve.

For Entrepreneurs, Life is Very, Very Good

Tuesday, September 1st, 2015
Life is Good Founders at Barnes & Noble

Life is Good Founders at Barnes & Noble

This evening I met Bert and John Jacobs, the co-founders of Life is Good, when they came to the Barnes & Noble in Warwick, Rhode Island to discuss their new book Life is Good: The Book – How to Live With Purpose and Enjoy the Ride. I have about twenty Life is Good t-shirts, mostly the designs featuring Jackie (the female stick figure printed on the shirt) with her dog Rocket, enjoying life: roasting marshmallows over a campfire, digging in the dirt or engaging in any activity around the joy of the simple life. I wear the t-shirts and jeans in the office and switch to formal business attire for client meetings or videoconferences. I love the philosophy of the company as stated on its website: “At Life is Good, we believe what you focus on will grow. This is not irrational cheerfulness, and it’s not blind positivity, but a pragmatic strategy for accomplishing goals and living a fulfilling life.”

For small business owners, life is very, very good. We get to do what we love and love what we do. That message came across as Bert and John discussed how they built Life is Good into a $100 million company. They got their start selling their t-shirts in the streets without a store front and grew the business to a recognized lifestyle brand. I enjoyed their down-to-earth and inspiring remarks. I also enjoyed the book, which presents “Ten Superpowers” (authenticity is one) to help you live with purpose and enjoy the ride. And I know that even when disaster strikes, life is still very, very good, because the things that are important become even more so. To lift your spirits and get a jolt of motivation, read the book.

Favorite Book of the Week – Economix

Sunday, August 23rd, 2015
Book of the Week

Book of the Week

Economix starts with an ambitious goal: to explain how the economy works (and doesn’t work). The book presents economic history in the form of a “graphic novel” or, as one reviewer put it, an “adult comic book”. The creativity of the presentation makes the book very engaging, a significant accomplishment for a subject that is often dull. Economix is organized into eight chapters, beginning with the “Invisible Hand” of Adam Smith and concluding with the challenges climate change poses to our economy today. Leaving aside the author’s occasional caustic comments, as he gets into more political topics towards the end of the book, I thoroughly enjoyed Economix. It is a helpful review of how we arrived at our present state of instability and indebtedness and what we might do to change our course. I appreciated the book’s reminders, for example, that Adam Smith feared increasing monopolistic power of big business and its ability to capture government subsidies and stifle competition. The map of environmental disasters was compelling. The book succeeds as a basic primer in economics and I strongly recommend that every small business owner read it.

Book Lover’s Day

Sunday, August 9th, 2015
{Heart} Books

{Heart} Books

Today is National Book Lover’s Day and so I am sharing with my fellow small business owners my ten favorite business books:

  1. Plowing the Sea: Nurturing the Hidden Sources of Growth in the Developing World by Michael Fairbanks and Stace Lindsay
  2. Organized Simplicity: The Clutter-Free Approach to Intentional Living by Tsh Oxenreider
  3. Blueprint to a Billion: Seven Essentials to Achieve Exponential Growth by David G. Thomson
  4. Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown
  5. Blue Ocean Strategy: How to Create Uncontested Market Space and Make the Competition Irrelevant by W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne
  6. Whale Hunting: How to Land Big Sales and Transform Your Company by Tom Searcy and
  7. The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid: Eradicating Poverty Through Profits by C.K. Prahalad
  8. As One: Individual Action, Collective Power by Mehrdad Baghai and James Quigley
  9. Breaking Out: How to Build Influence in a World of Competing Ideas by James Butman
  10. The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy by Pietra Rivoli

I’d be grateful if you would share your recommendations with me. As part of my commitment to implement the tenets of “Essentialism”, I donated over 1200 books to a library and have a new system for managing my reading list. I keep a running “wish list” of books I want to read and then check them out of the local public library, taking advantage of the inter-library loan program if my local branch does not have the book. I take careful notes and digitize them before returning the book. If the book is one that I will return to often and I want to make it a permanent part of my collection, I will get the Kindle version or maybe wait until it comes out in paperback to purchase it. This process frees up space in my home office and I feel less overwhelmed.

The Big Truck That Went By

Sunday, August 2nd, 2015
The Big Truck That Went By

The Big Truck That Went By

This book is a first-rate account of Haiti’s recent history, including the January 2010 earthquake, from the only American reporter stationed in the country at the time. Jonathan M. Katz was with the Associated Press and his observations of the earthquake and the even more tragic response to it resonated with me on so many levels. He describes how the response of international donors to the earthquake created problems that did not previously exist and despite their stated intentions, largely failed to accomplish what they had set out to do.

You might be tempted to think that this type of inept response could only occur in a developing country, but then consider the lessons of some of our recent disasters. I can imagine any one of my friends in the New Orleans area nodding in agreement upon reading the sections of the book dealing with the attempts to provide food and temporary shelters to those in Haiti who had lost everything. In my experience, non-profit organizations focused on disaster relief often focus more on serving the interests of their donors than the intended beneficiaries; that is part of the reason why I set up Prisere as an LLC and not a 501-c-3 charity. (There were other considerations, too.)

The real tragedy is that many of the losses were entirely avoidable. The earthquake that struck Haiti on January 12, 2010 registered 7.0 on the Richter Scale; severe to be sure, but only six weeks later, on February 27, an earthquake of magnitude 8.8 struck Chile, causing fewer casualties, largely due to building codes ensuring safer structures. The title of the book refers to the shaking that occurs when large trucks drive by; many Haitians initially attributed the movements on January 12 to that of a passing truck until they realized it was a true earthquake. The centralization of people and services in Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital, that proved so deadly, was partly the result of U.S. foreign policy and actions. The author argues that as Americans, we have a responsibility to understand, and correct, the harm caused by the massive humanitarian efforts our government led. I agree.

I was surprised that the author took such an unflinching look at the apparent cynicism behind the actions of Hillary Clinton. One of her first acts as Secretary of State was to order a review of U.S. policy towards Haiti. When, hours later, the earthquake struck, both Clintons assumed very visible roles in prodding other governments and non-governmental organizations to step up. Haitians are left to live with the consequences of our response; we have moved on. The ongoing struggles in Haiti are no longer part of our news cycle.

Another surprise, at least for me, was the author’s account of the actions of the actor Sean Penn, which he personally observed. My experience at Ground Zero has led me to be somewhat cynical about celebrities appearing on the scene of the disaster to “help”. I remember only too well how, in the aftermath of 9-11, a number of celebrities callously treated the area as another velvet rope. So-called “B” and “C” list celebrities could be photographed touring the remains with a uniformed officer as their guide. An “A” list celebrity would be taken about by then Mayor Giuliani. Only when the families of the deceased protested how disrespectful this practice was (remember at that time, most of them were still anxiously awaiting recovery of the remains of their loved ones), did the guided celebrity tours stop. At that time, the families of the 9-11 victims were quite powerful as their losses gave them political clout. According to what Katz had observed, and I trust the observations of a skeptical journalist, Penn was remarkably effective at showing up with media coverage and embarrassing local officials into doing something useful.

With natural hazards increasing in both frequency and severity, we all benefit from understanding how disaster relief works and how it could be improved. We benefit even more from understanding what can be done to reduce disaster risk. This book delivers on providing critical insights into both policy issues.

Simplify: The Message of Essentialism

Wednesday, March 4th, 2015
The Importance of Simplicity

The Importance of Simplicity

Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less is my favorite business book of the year. Its key message is that by simplifying your life to focus on the key essentials, you get rid of the things that don’t matter to make room for the things that do. And the message applies to small businesses, too. I find I can work a 14-hour day exhausted only to realize that I ticked off many of the trivial items on my “To-do” list without tackling the most important items critical to the success of the business. I was reminded of this challenge when I read this morning’s newspaper article about the release of Knowledge@Wharton’s “Simplifying the Future of Work Survey”. The survey, conducted by the team at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, found that two-thirds of business leaders identified simplification as critical to the ability of businesses to innovate and compete.

Complexity is inefficient and costly. The Simplicity Consulting Group found that companies lose, on average, 10.2% of their earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortization due to complexity. (I suspect that much of that loss is the result of duplication of efforts and waste or resources.) And complexity is lethal for business continuity planning. As stated in the first edition of Prepare for the Worst, Plan for the Best: Disaster Preparedness and Recovery for Small Businesses, (page 12), “Developing your contingency plan should not become a large bureaucratic effort. Indeed, to be effective, your small business’s contingency plans should be a model of clarity, understood by every member of the company. It begins with key management leaders and includes all of the employees, because in a disaster situation every person who is knowledgeable and prepared can make a critical difference to a successful outcome.”

Weekend Reading

Saturday, January 24th, 2015
No More Status Quo

No More Status Quo

I am catching up on my reading this weekend and just finished Naomi Klein’s latest book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. Klein argues that the need to address climate change provides the opportunity to address long-standing and counterproductive policies in many domains. I particularly enjoyed her treatment of the intersection of climate change issues and global trade protocols.

In particular, the book cites a study published by the 2011 Proceedings of the National Academy of Science which found that the emissions from the industrialized countries that had signed the Kyoto Protocol (an international framework to reduce carbon emission) had stopped increasing, in part, because these countries had moved their heaviest polluting manufacturing operations overseas. The study found that the rise in emissions from goods produced in developing countries by consumed in industrialized ones was six times greater than the emissions savings of the industrialized countries that had signed the Protocol.

I also appreciated the author’s insights into the conflict between the “Buy Local” movement and international trade agreements. Many disaster-impacted communities (and not just those impacted by disaster, but they are the ones that caught my attention) promote “Buy Local” movements, in part, to help rebuild devastated local economies. It is also good policy to support local producers as they are more reliable suppliers when disasters delay or stop the shipment of needed goods. I was particularly impressed by the commitment of the “Buy Local” movement in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Of course, “Buy Local” also offers reduced carbon emissions as goods need not be transported across long distances to reach consumers. And therein lies the conflict with international trade agreements that rest on non-discrimination rules requiring that foreign companies be treated no less favorably than domestic suppliers.  I had expected the book to present more data on the need to reduce carbon emissions to reduce weather-related hazards and the increasing frequency of large-scale disasters, but found the treatment of trade policies to be more intriguing.  I might not finish the book this weekend, but at the halfway point, I can already recommend it.

Sign of the Times

Friday, November 6th, 2009

In the first edition of Prepare for the Worst, Plan for the Best: Disaster Preparedness and Recovery for Small Businesses (John WIley & Sons Inc., 2008), we were lucky enough to get an article on small business disaster preparedness in CostCo Connection, the magazine for CostCo’s members. This was particularly important for us as CostCo serves a large membership base of small businesses. So I was stunned to read in the newspaper that CostCo will begin to accept food stamps for payments of grocery purchases. As Hoovers (a business database of Dun & Bradstreet) states of warehouse shopping clubs “Demographics and small business growth drive demand, and spending in warehouse clubs generally resists economic cycles.” I am a member of both CostCo and its competitor Sam’s Club as both offer great cost savings for small business purchases. Nationally, one of eight American adults and one of out two children now receive food stamps. This development was inconceivable just two years ago.