Archives for category: Books

Any book that tries to deal with a subject that is as current as the COVID 19 pandemic is going to face an uphill battle. It will be out of date as soon as it is written, never mind published.


With that in mind, Nicholas A. Christakis has done a remarkable job. An epidemiologist, Dr. Christakis in Apollo’s Arrow places the COVID 19 pandemic into is historical context as a plague and also provides a definitive account of how this pandemic played out and where mistakes were made – spoiler alert; there is plenty of blame to go around. Where Apollo’s Arrow really shines, however, is in its examination of the social impact, both positive and negative of COVID 19 on individuals, countries, and our culture.


Due to his background, Dr. Christakis is able to not only make sense of the confusing early decisions made by multiple parties, but also in understanding the motivations behind those decisions. There is also no coddling of the reader in Apollo’s Arrow. In a time when most people’s expertise in epidemics comes from the movie “Contagion” – and I have to include myself in those numbers – it is refreshing to gain an understanding of why more well know terms are problematic, such as R-0, and others that are less well known such as NPI (non-pharmaceutical interventions) are used and why.


While it is impossible the remove the politics of the response to COVID 19, particularly in the United States, Dr. Christakis does try his best and it is noticeable that in his initial timeline he tries to keep politicians out of the picture. That’s is not to say that there is any mincing of words; “If the United States had been a student in my class, I would have failed them,” is an early example.
The debunking of wrongheaded ideas from politicians is also a key element of Apollo’s Arrow. The Swedish solution – “herd immunity” as soon as possible, is an example. Sweden has small healthy population, universal health care, and low levels of poverty; all of which make it distinctly different from the United States. Testing and the approach to testing is also examined in depth. If you only test those with symptoms, the ratio of positives to negatives will be high. If you only test those that are worried, the ratio will below. Randomized samples are the only way to know levels of infection.


As mentioned above, it is in the social science arena that Apollo’s Arrow really shines. That “fear has its own epidemiology, its own spreading dynamics,” is one such revelatory idea. Dr. Christakis does not spare the conspiracy theorists; “There is a feeling that we can change our reality if we change the words or images – the virus is real. Reality matters.” A surprising part of Apollo’s Arrow is how positive it is, with a recognition of the successes we have had and also that our species is capable of extreme examples of altruism. We probably do not hear enough about that.


Where Apollo’s Arrow fails is in relationship to the vaccine. It points out that while there is hope, the quickest previously created vaccine as for Ebola; and that took five years. That a significant proportion of the population of the United States, and several other countries, has been vaccinated for COVID 19 by early 2021 is an almost impossible hope by the vantage point of the author at the time of writing. This is a very welcome shortcoming; however, and given the variants that now exist and the unknown levels of protection that the various vaccines may provide to these variants, we should probably not be so smug.


For anyone who wants to stand back and view the early days of the COVID 19 pandemic, and its effects on our society, it hard to imagine a better book; written without the benefit of hindsight, to read on the subject than Apollo’s Arrow. I can’t recommend it enough.

Pet Nation is a very curious book.

The central tenant of the book is that the United States, in the last 10 – 15 years, has become a nation of highly involved, some might obsessed, pet owners; and that those pets live extremely comfortable lives. There is a fairly convincing argument that pets are a symptom of a dysfunctional society. People are seeking connection, but increasingly lonely. Pets, through social media sites like Facebook, and because of them providing a positive subject for interactions, are both providing that connection and acting as a catalyst for human-to-human connections. My favorite line for the book is “Dogs are knitting society together.”  

If you want a friend, get a dog.  

There is also some interesting research in Pet Nation, and facts are for the mostly part cited. The occasional “scientists say” is infuriating, but these shortcuts are few and far between. One of the more surprising focuses of the book is the looming shortage of dogs in the United States. This is an idea that has been percolating for a little while now, but had not really been on my radar until reading Pet Nation. Mr. Cushing lays the blame for the shortage of dogs on the overwhelming success of spay and neuter programs and the failure to regulate, and thereby approve, commercial breeding operations. These are controversial assertions, but he does make a good case.     

 Mr. Cushing is an attorney who has been working in the pet field for a significant period of time. The chapter on the legal issues surrounding pets is excellent; particularly, when it comes to efforts by Walmart and Online pharmacies to force veterinarians send their prescription business to them.

Where the book falls down is in addressing the dark side of “Pet Nation,” particularly in the challenges facing veterinary medicine. The epidemic of suicide amongst veterinarians, and veterinary staff, and one of its contributing factors; the online bullying of veterinary professionals, is not mentioned at all. Also ignored is the problem of clients being unable to afford veterinary care, but still considering pets family members and therefore being devastated, or looking for scapegoats, when they cannot afford treatment or surgery that their pet needs.

While insurance is mentioned in Pet Nation, it is only to remark on the lack of uptake, rather than the larger issues that this represents. To give credit where it is due, the failure of pet insurance companies to market their products effectively is highlighted. Likewise, the moves to create a national title of Veterinary Nurse, to replace the hodgepodge of LVT, CVT, RVT, et al., which Mr. Cushing is part of, is given a welcome spotlight; but it is hardly the central concern facing the Veterinary Technician community.     

The blame for the lack of veterinarians, in Pet Nation, is laid squarely at the door of the veterinary schools. Their small class sizes, and the lack of schools themselves are seen as the problem. Crippling school debt, and those leaving the profession, are not mentioned. The idea of creating a veterinary Nurse Practitioner designation, while it would be a welcome part of the solution, fails to address the lack of veterinary technicians in the profession and is hardly the panacea it is presented as.   

Veterinary professionals may well find the focus on Banfield and Blue Pearl grating, given the glowing treatment, with little thought given to the issues that corporate medicine and the significant consolidation are bringing to the veterinary space. The occasional factual mistakes, parvo is endemic in areas of the United States, it is not a disease that is solely brought in by imported pets, are not quite as annoying as the mistakes by omission. Pet food is mentioned multiple times but the fight that many veterinary nutritionists and veterinarians over “natural” products and inappropriate diets is an argument that is ignored.   

There is good information in Pet Nation, and its central ideas are interesting. It is a missed opportunity to not address the wider, and darker issues that are part of its themes.  

Being, effectively, a self-taught manager, there are things you come across that drive you crazy. One of those things is the insistence, from people with MBAs, to only look at data when it comes to decision making. While I am a great proponent of education; I have my career in spite of a lack of further education – not because of it, I find the constant insistence on relying on data to be frustratingly narrow minded and lacking in imagination.

Restoring the Soul of Business, Staying Human in the Age of Data by Rishad Tobaccowala is one of the few business books that actually supports the downplaying of data, and by god is it refreshing to hear.

I should make clear; this is not a “touchy feely” plea for businesses to be based on being nice to people; but the business case for giving equal weight to both “stories” and “spreadsheets.” That the best business decisions are often not data driven, but driven by the experiences and ideas of individuals.

There are points in the book, like with many books that argue for seemingly “too good be to true” ideas and concepts, that the reader can become frustrated and want to yell “Yes, but..” Mr. Tobaccowala; however, deftly sprinkles in touches of reality which gives context, and caveats, to benefits that seem to have no place in the business world of real people.

Restoring the Soul of Business is a plea for the middle ground. That data has its place, and is not an omnipotent modern god as pointed out by Cathy O’Neil in her excellent Weapons of Math Destruction that I reviewed here, and that people with ideas and intuition, stories in other words, can balance each other in the workplace. Over reliance on either the “story or the spreadsheet,” a phrase that does begin to grate after a while, is a trap to which we can all fall into; and many businesses already have.

It is the realism of Restoring the Soul of Business that makes it a book worth listening to. That data driven companies tend to have cold cultures and little innovation which in turn leads to poor customer service. The examples litter the headlines; Southwest Airlines vs. United Airlines for just one example.

While there are lots of books that ask us to take a better look at our data, I have reviewed a number of them, this is one of the few books making the case for balance.

And that makes it a fresh, and interesting read, and a book to take to heart.

There are books that influence other books, and ideas that multiple authors undertake sometimes with wildly different results.

Better is a book that is accompanied with a healthy dose of Deju Vu. I have previously read Dr. Gawande’s “Being Mortal”, written years after Better – which was published in 2007, which had rocked my world and changed my perceptions on life, death, and above all quality of life. Better, therefore was a bit of a letdown. A lot of the stories, Better is essentially a collection of anecdotes, were familiar and there was no real great insight or overarching theme other than just to be “better.”

Perhaps because I am not a doctor, and yet know enough about how medicine and hospitals work from the fringes where veterinary medicine resides, that Better did not bowl me over as I was expecting. It is in fact telling, that Veterinary Medicine is not mentioned once in Dr. Gawande’s Better given that a lot of the issues he seeks to shed light on; medical costs, liability, and vaccinations are handled wildly differently by veterinarians than human doctors. There is a feeling that even though this is a book about looking at problems differently, the research has been performed on an ad hoc basis rather than in any systematic fashion.  

This is a book about out of the box thinking and overcoming inertia. Human medicine has become so specialized and therefore a victim of institutional dogma that change can easily been seen as heresy. Better suggests that it is often not the ideas that matter, particularly when those ideas fail create passion in others, so much as the people who champion those ideas.

It is not a book full of great revelations, it is a book that shows excellence and failure, and what those stories look like. The hope, upon reading such a work, is that others are inspired to replicate some of the ideas, or at least try not to stand in the way of those ideas when they are presented by others. And it is hard to argue the point that we can all do better, by being passionate and by not settling for the status quo.

All of this is not to say that Better is not enjoyable. These are interesting, and at times inspiring, tales that are worth reading. This is not a book to change your view of the world, I suspect not even in human medicine, but it is possible at this is too high a standard to hold any book to.

Dr. Gawande’s other books do have the reputation for this incredible high standard, but is it ok the settle for just being entertained and to find something interesting.

Chip Heath & Dan Heath write books that I have loved and have bought for others.

Switch, Made to Stick, and to a lesser extent, The Power of Moments; have become bibles of management theory to myself, those that I work with, consult for, and mentor. (Click on the links above to read my reviews of those books.)

So why, oh why, did I have no interest in Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work, when it came out. I have come to believe, now having finally read it, that it comes down to the title. Being decisive is never something that I feel I have struggled with. I’ve made bold choices in both my work and personal life; and they have never been things that I have agonized over or second guessed myself after the fact. What did I need with a book about how to make decisions, even if it was from the brothers Heath?

And that’s a shame.

Decisive is a great, and very useful book just like all the other books by Chip Heath & Dan Heath. This is a book about choice. Yes, it also covers decision making, but really it is about how to expand one’s choices and evaluate them better. Like all books by Chip Heath & Dan Heath, it is impeccably researched; and it is that research that drives their advice and conclusions – even when it come comes inconvenient.

A central tenant put forth in Decisive is that when faced with binary decision (do A or do B), it actually helps the process to actively seek out more choices. This would seem to fly in the face of advice from the Heath Brother’s previous book Switch about choice overload. To their credit, the authors freely admit the seeming contradiction with regards to choice overload, and then explain elegantly how to increase your choices and not get overloaded.

Another surprisingly easy tool to implement from Decisive is that when we are faced with a personal decision, that we should ask ourselves what we would advise our best friend to do if they were in our shoes. It does sound odd, but the exercise does actually work and give you a differ perspective. To attain distance.  

These tools are all, if you’ll forgive the pun, wrapped up in an acronym; W.R.A.P.

  • Widen Your Options
  • Reality Test Your Assumptions
  • Attain Distance Before Deciding
  • Prepare to Be Wrong

That humans are not good at making decisions, and often hobble themselves, should not come a news. What makes decisive interested to me; however, is that it is possible to improve the quality of those decisions. Which leads me to wonder if not reading this book when it first came out was not a bad decision of my own.

That’s something I can admit to, as long the Chip Heath & Dan Heath could rethink their decision on the book title.  

This is the hardest book review that I have ever undertaken to write.

There are books that I do not feel I have the intellectual rigor to do justice too, The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt for example, which was one of my favorite books of 2018, and there are books that I can’t say much more about other than “read it,” Traction by Gino Wickman falls into this category. White Fragility is both; however, it also shook me to my core, and I felt I had no choice but to try and do it justice. I can count on one hand the books that have upended my beliefs, as White fragility has done, during my life.

I was initially skeptical of Ms. DiAngelo’s New York Times bestseller. I was uncomfortable with a white author discussing race for a primarily white audience. Considering myself a reasonably “woke” individual, but never as pretentious to use such a term, what can I, as a reasonably well read and liberal individual be taught through a third party’s experience of racism?

That I am part of the problem.

Ms. DiAngelo’s book is a tour de force and a wakeup call for those that consider themselves allies, but all too often support racist structures and prejudiced behavior.

“Our simplistic definition of racism as intentional acts of immoral individuals engenders a confidence that we are not part of the problem and thus our learning is complete.”  – From White Fragility

White Fragility changes, some may say clarifies, our definitions of words that have melded into, as Ms. DiAngleo would probably agree, a binary good and bad. I cannot be those things because I, or they, am a good person. By not being to get past this logjam, true discussions of racism are impossible.

As quoted in White Fragility; “Racism is a structure not an event. A structure of oppression that goes beyond individual prejudice and discrimination.” In other words, racism is tied to societal power. Only whites can be racist because only whites, in the United States, hold societal power. That whites cannot help but be racist, is partially explained by being brought up in a racist society.

These are powerful and disturbing words for most white people to hear, let alone believe. It is helped by defining other terms, not just in their racism framework but in anthropologic one.  Prejudice is prejudging someone based on the social groups that the person belongs to and based on little or no additional information. “All humans have prejudices,” writes Ms. DiAngelo. Discrimination is action that is based on prejudice. It is therefore possible to be racist, because one comes from a racist society, but not be prejudice or practice discrimination.

In a devastating section of White Fragility, Ms. Diangelo shows us how “whiteness” has become the norm for “human” and challenges us to think about the patterns of friendship, culture, and society in general that we grew up in and continue observe today that reinforce a racist society. That believing we are in a post racial society, or that by our uniqueness of experience or background, means that we are immune to group messages and “white solidarity,” is expertly dismantled by Ms. DiAngelo’s totally logical arguments.  That “good schools” has become a metaphor for a “more white neighborhood,” is the most obvious example of this.

“The way I see the world, drives my actions in the world.” – White Fragility

White Fragility is not an easy read. This is not because of Ms. Diangelo’s prose, which are excellent, but because this is a book that you will disagree with. That is its purpose, to challenge your basic assumptions about the society we live in. To see the world in a different way. To understand the world as people of color understand the world. And hopefully understand the strictures that are in place that make it so hard for white people to have discussions about race, in any meaningful form.

White fragility is a starting point to allow our world view to be changed, and perhaps to make us more open to hearing feedback on when the society we grew up in, and live in today, intrudes on our interactions and friendships with people of color.

Read this book.

Scott Stratten, and latterly with his wife Alison, have written five other books on the intersection of customer service, social media, and marketing. I have reviewed most of them, which you can find here, routinely listen to their podcast, The Unpodcast, and I have a framed and signed “Don’t try to win over the haters. You are not the Jackass Whisperer” poster in my office. I am an unashamed fan boy.

Their books have swung from deep dives into marketing theory, to jokey and fairly superficial explorations of the absurdities that the marketing, and wider business world, is full of  – always with humor sprinkled throughout.  Although by no means an expert, I am certainly familiar with their work and their thinking on a variety of subjects.

Their latest book, would seem to an addition to their collection of books with a “gimmick.” A 125 question and answer book to see whether when presented with an example of “jackassery” one responds with a “Jackass Reaction” or a “Whisperer Reaction.”

But…

That is not what if going on here at all.

By coming at the subject from an indirect angle, the Stratten’s have laid bare our worst instinctual reactions to other people’s worst behavior. It shows that, in many instances we are just as much the problem rather than the innocent victim that we too often paint ourselves as. The implicit message is that the only way to deal with bad behavior is not to react to it out of outrage, but out of understanding and an attempt to solve the real underlying issue. To be the better person.

Of course, the book, and by assumption the authors, are not suggesting that all behavior is acceptable, but that “pick you battles” is really mantra we should all live by. That we have a responsibility to make the world a better place, and that starts with our interactions with each other. I find this particularly interesting as there was an element of “shame culture” in the earlier Unpodcast episodes. Jon Roson’s excellent “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed,” which I reviewed here, goes much deeper into the culture of naming and shaming online; and the Jackass Whisperer seems to be a repudiation of that shame culture.

The Jackass Whisper is over the top, although most of the inciting incidents seem to be based on real occurrences (we really are doomed as a species), the reactions, both as a Jackass or as a Whisperer, are so over the top that it becomes useful to use them as a gauge for how you, the reader, would deal with such a thing. If one is being honest it is easy to see where your reaction is really not helpful, although perhaps satisfying at the time in terms of revenge.

It is, or course, easy to read this book superficially – as I did initially if I’m honest. But it subtly asks questions of us that are not easily answered. Is this the person I want to be? Do I really have to react like this to perceived provocations?

I’ll leave you to guess in the comments on my Jackass scale, but really that is not what is important about the Jackass Whisperer. It is the thought, and potential internal discussion, on the nature of reaction that a thoughtful reading of the book provokes, that makes it well worth your time and the purchase price.

courage
Farnziska Iseli’s book “The Courage Map: 13 Principles to Living Boldly” is a short book that makes the case for adding more courage into our lives to make them more interesting, more enjoyable, and more successful.

Ms. Iseli then further breaks down courage, as the title suggests into 13 key principles. These 13 principles are obviously important to Ms. Iseli, and have informed her business, personal, and travel life. It is also obvious, that some of these principles have been thought about extensively over a number of years give the book a sense of intellectual rigor that is sometimes not found in other books of its type.

The Courage Map can be a little schizophrenic; however, as personal development books go. On the one hand, it dips in and out of travel book territory to underline and exemplify the 13 principles at the core of the book and one finds oneself wanting to either hear more about a particular principle or about the anecdote about Iranian border guards.

This is a little frustrating, because it lends the book the air of a spoiled adventurer, which Ms. Iseli patently is not. For those who do not know, Ms. Iseli is a highly successful serial entrepreneur and speaker. I found myself throughout wanting to find out more about Ms. Iseli’s travels and gain a deeper grasp over what her trips meant to her and he philosophy of courageous living. Almost as if there were two books fighting each other.
This is a shame, because there is some really good thinking in “The Courage Map.” There are short throw away phrases that resonate long after they have passed in the book. Who doesn’t understand what a “poop shower” is? I for one am glad to add it to my vocabulary. Likewise, the insight that “kindness is like snow – it beautifies everything it covers,” a quote from Kahlil Gibran, is an immediate and pivotal idea to glean from any book.

Which chapters resonate with the reader, I suspect, will be wildly different with each  individual reader. I found the chapter on non-attachment particularly illuminating and gave a serious reason for thought and pause – really the purpose for any book of this type. While I found the chapters on “flow” and “love” a little too in the realm of new age mysticism.

There is a lot to take from Ms. Iseli’s book, and it is a book I expect to dip back into. Not all of it is for everyone I suspect. But its central theme, that we should all learn to live a little more boldly if we want to be happy, is an admirable quality and certainly one that is helped with a thoughtful reading of “The Courage Map.” While perhaps a little frustrating for some readers, there is some great stuff here in “The Courage Map,” which makes it worth your time to read and keep on your shelf.

design your future

When you review books, and particularly when you are behind in reviewing the stack of books at your bedside like I currently am, you form opinions of them as they wait to be read.

This is, of course, complete nonsense, the very definition of judging a book by its cover. But it happens.

For some reason when “Design Your Future: 3 simple steps to stop drifting and take command of your life” was sent to me, I took an instant dislike to it. I don’t know if it was the cover, or the tag line, or just more likely the subject matter. I rarely find that books meant to inspire me to change my life ever actually do. But I read it more out of a need to get it off my nightstand than anything else.

So by way of contrition let me be the first to say, I was wrong about this book.

I absolutely loved it.

Mr. Quartuccio has managed to mix basic cognitive behavioral therapy tools with basic goal setting and created a rather elegant way of looking at one’s life and life goals, without the pitfalls and baggage that makes people like me hate books of this type. “Design your Future” is an easy read with an elegant layout that does not feel simplistic.
The main idea of “Design Your Life” is that awakening, disrupting, and designing your life is a constant process that puts you in command (not control) of your life and helps you identify what is actually important to you. That most of us drift through life, afraid to make changes, but unhappy with our lives and with vague life goals that show a constant lack of progress, is probably not news to many people. That the stories we tell ourselves reinforce the status quo, and therefore continue to make us miserable, however, may be. What is really unusual is to finish a book with a real sense that these issues are solvable with a little work on your part.

One of the most intriguing tools in the book is the suggestion to write your own eulogy. Not as macabre as you might thing, writing your own eulogy actually gives a destination to your life. How long do you want to live? What are the things that you want to achieve before you die? What is actually important to you? By creating these fundamental goals for one’s life, one can then work backwards to see what the lessor goals need to be while also providing motivation. “I want to lose 20lbs” because I need to lose weight is a little adrift as a life goal, while “I want to lose 20lbs because my doctor says that will help me in my goal to make it to 80 years old” is more anchored into a general scheme to take control of one’s life.

I also really like the book’s emphasis on completing things rather than trying to make them perfect. “Ultimately, perfectionism is a guise for fear. Fear of being judged or being attacked or having your flaws exposed or whatever other weird hang-up you’re carrying. The book you’re reading is littered with so much imperfection it makes me cringe. But guess what? I’ve got a book.”

The nitpicker in me finds the over emphasis on meditation in “Design Your Future” a bit much, however, in fairness to Mr. Quartuccio he does acknowledge that all he wants to do is “ignite a personal curiosity” which he did in me.

Design Your Future is a surprising and useful book that talked directly to me. Perhaps it was just the right book at the right time; however, who cares. It’s a great read and made me think.

I’m off to write my eulogy.

age of infuence
I’ve been following Neal, as a voice on marketing and social media, for easily 10 years.

When he announced the opportunity to buy his new book in advance, receive a signed copy, and be mentioned in the acknowledgments for to helping to support the book’s creation; I took him up on his offer – LinkedIn paying off once again.

You can find me mentioned, and neatly bisected, between page ix and x.

Fame at last.

I delve into this minutia because Neal’s book deals with, and makes the case for, influence and influencers. In how to both leverage and engage influencers in a successful business relationship, but also on how to be a successful influencer in the first place.

Influencer Marketing has received rather a bad wrap outside of the marketing world – particularly by the business community. This is mainly due to news stories of millennials traveling the world, and expecting hundreds of dollars in free goods and services in return for a good word on social media of dubious value. It is also not helped by stories of influencers using their networks to “take revenge” on businesses they feel slighted by; or who have spurned their advances.

“The Age of Influence” makes the case for influencer marketing to actually be an extension of normal social media engagement, taken to its next logical level. Those of us that have our own brands, and brands that we work for, on social know that our own personal posts are treated much more favorably by algorithm gods than brand business posts. It’s a “pay to play” world.

Influencer marketing leverages the personal voice for business purposes. Where “The Age of Influence” really succeeds is in showing the reader that influencer marketing should really be about the relationship between the brand, the influencer, and their larger social following. That the pinnacle of influencer marketing is not a paid Instagram post by someone famous. The pinnacle is rather the partnership, on a long-term basis, between a fan of a product or service, who also has their own fans who trusts the message because of the messenger. Trust is based on authenticity.

There is, of course, a tendency for brands to want to control their message, voice, and overall look. This is normal. As marketing professionals, we spend a lot of money, time, and energy into creating a look and personality for a brand that we are happy with. However, to do this with influencers is to stifle their natural creativity and voice that made them influencers in the first place. Likewise, influencers are not content creation adjuncts to the marketing department. Working with influencers, whose followings come in all shapes and sizes, is a partnership that could be allowing them to interview staff, get a sneak peek at a product or service, or giving discount codes, or products, to followers. The more successful the influencer, the more like working with a traditional media company the relationship becomes. But at its core, when influencer marketing is successful it is about a relationship where both parties are happy and getting what they want out of the collaboration.

There are significant legal issues with paid collaborations between influencers and brands. And while “The Age of Influence” does not deal with this in depth, it does warn of the pitfalls and make it clear that these are issues to address with any campaign that must be taken seriously.

“The Age of Influence” is much more than a “how to” manual of influencer marketing; it is a treatise on how influence is actually about boosting engagement and having a more dynamic relationship between customer and brand. How in its earliest of stages, influencer marketing is indistinguishable for just good social media engagement. As Neal states in the book, don’t get too focused on the tools; but the tools to get started are all in “The Age of Influence.”

If you feel that influencer marketing is not for you; “The Age of Influence” begs to differ, and if your interest is already there then it is the all-important bible.

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