Book time: What I tackled reading and learnt this summer

My recent cheeky out of office during a family holiday informed those trying to reach me that I was out of office on “book time.” Given my day-job, my travel schedule and my active enjoyment on weekends of time as a father of 3, I don’t get to read as many books as I’d like, so I tend to measure how “good” a summer vacation was based on how many books I manage to tackle by a poolside.

In previous summers I read Lynn Olson’s Citizens of London and reflected on the role foreigners played during WWII, but also the role of foreigners in building the modern tech ecosystem in this vibrant city, and more recently Ramez Naam’s Nexus trilogy which got me excited about brain-machine interfaces and hacking the brain.

This summer I had an ambitious pile of books and below are some of the ones I managed to tackle and some takeaways from each:

In the go-go days of the dot-com era, the founding Partners of Benchmark Capital allowed a journalist to follow them around and produce a fascinating insight into the backing of the likes of eBay, WebVan and eBoys by Randall Stross is out of print, but you can still buy used versions on Amazon. A few things stuck with me throughout the book: The first was how regular an occurrence it was for investors to bring in external CEOs (ex: Meg Whitman at eBay). Even though I was living in this dot-com madness on the other Coast of the US and the company I worked for had its own IPO in 1998 (and crash in 2000), the speed at which some of the companies were being founded and then floated is astounding (hmm.. kinda like ICO’s in the past few months). Thirdly, the looming threat from Amazon that dominates various companies referenced in the book and which continues to this day. And finally, how the Partner conversations, up and down votes on investments, and continuous combination of excitement and concern about each portfolio company, eerily resemble the daily discussion with my own Partners now that I’m on the other side of the table. For anyone in tech, those that were there in the dot-com days and those that weren’t, this is a fantastic book on the early days of a VC firm that has since continued to be at the top of its game. [NB: Interestingly Stross also more recently wrote The Launch Pad an inside view on Y-Combinator which is now on the To Read list]

The second book I finished this summer is a bit of a cheat as I had actually started reading it back in March, but it’s one of those books that leads to a lot of thought and side-reading on global affairs. The Accidental Superpower by Peter Zeihan is meant to be a Geopolitics analysis on the geographic, resource, demographics, and military reasons why the United States became and will continue to be the leading global superpower. It’s a great companion book to The Next 100 Years by George Friedman. The more interesting insights from the book focus on what the author predicts will happen as the US becomes more insular, as political climate drives its leaders to focus on “Making America Great Again” and the ripple effect this will have on the Bretton Woods system of global financial and political stability that has provided order to the world since WWII. As a politician friend recently said, “we are going from a rules-based world to an interest-based world.” The book does a walk-through of all the major regions of the world, their own resources, demographics and “interests”. I learnt that Calgary’s oil and gas subsidises the rest of Canada (and would be the 2nd richest state should it hypothetically secede from Canada to the US), that the demographic curve in Europe will place an extremely high burden on my generation to support the much bigger baby boomers, that (as Friedman also points out in Next 100 Years) Mexico’s weakness is also its force: the proximity, size of border, the cost of manufacturing disparity between the northern and southern neighbours, and Mexico’s own population curve, will make it a significant economic power in the decades to come. This book helps you understand geopolitics, prepare for both the demographic and interest conflicts that will likely arise in the future and perhaps hope that this Accidental Superpower does reverse course and seek to replace interests with rules once again.

Finally I switched to biology: I have recently been trying to learn as much about genomics and CRISPR as possible as I am excited and convinced that we are entering The Century of Biology. Jennifer Doudna is the Berkley-based co-discovered of CRISPR-Cas9 and A Crack in Creation is her point of view account on its discovery, some of the amazing applications already in labs, but also some of the ethical concerns that we must start addressing as we start editing human DNA. As I wrote in my OoO, I picked up this book in late July and devoured it “because if we’re about to start playing God, I’d like to understand what magic wand we’re going to be using”. The book is extremely approachable (remembering your cell structure and A,T,G and C’s from high school bio should be enough) and name-drops a bunch of the leading minds in this space like George Church at Harvard or Emanuelle Charpentier, who co-discovered CRISPR-Cas9 with Doudna. Interestingly all three of them have gone on to create CRISPR related biotech companies, all of which have gone public in the past year for a combined market cap of over $2B — for now ($CRSP $NTLA $EDIT). The last chapters, however, are the most important reads, as Doudna goes from educating us on what exactly CRISPR is and how it’s being tested to treat HIV, Leukemia, Cystic Fibrosis but also to remove diseases from embryos…and ensure such removal applies to those babies own babies, and she shares her concern about where this might be heading. As the inventor of CRISPR her warning about ongoing research to modify the germline should heed us as a society to discuss this more openly and imminently. Her recent SXSW keynote is also worth a watch.

I did also manage to tackle a few other long-read articles, a SciFi novel (the first one in Iain M. Banks The Culture series) and started Alain de Botton’s Status Anxiety and there’s a few more sitting by the bedside. A mix of geopolitics, techdom look-back, genomics, scifi combined with being less responsive to email than usual and spending plenty of time in the pool with my kids and at the table with my wife made this, the summer of 2017 a highly successful one for both brain, body and soul.