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America and the New Global Economy

America and the New Global Economy

From the course description:

The global economy in 1950 was defined by a lack of interconnectedness and U.S. economic dominance. More than half a century later, stronger international economic ties and the rise of the Chinese and Indian economies are just two of the dramatic changes that are underway as globalization—the process of the world’s diverse countries coming together and sharing experiences, events, and trade—continues to be a force in our economic climate.
The origins of this globalized economy, its effects on important contemporary concerns, and its future trends are just a few of the intriguing issues you explore in America and the New Global Economy.

For more information about this course click here to go to the Teaching Company website.



Modern Economic Issues

Modern Economic Issues

As the name indicates this is an overview course covering a broad range of topics from trade barriers to unemployment.

From the course description:

How do the major economic issues that dominate today’s news—questions about gross domestic product or budget deficits or trade imbalances—impact the average citizen? Why are health insurance and college tuition increasingly expensive? What can be done about soaring energy prices?
In Modern Economic Issues, Professor Robert Whaples has crafted a course designed to answer just these sorts of questions—a primer in 21st-century economics for the non-economist. He first presents the results of a survey of professional economists around the country on what they consider today’s most urgent economic issues—the ones all of us most need to understand. Professor Whaples then puts his award-winning teaching skills to work to shape an accessible course, explaining not only those urgent issues but also the raw data economists use to describe their shape and impact.

The result is a course that finally makes the connection between the economics you may have studied in school and the economics of the lives we experience every day.

If you would like to learn more about this course, click here to go to the Teaching Company website.


Business Law: Contracts

Business Law: Contracts

This course will not eliminate the need for a lawyer to review your business contracts, but it will give you a more solid foundation in the jargon and principles involved.

From the course description:

What is a contract? How can you make one binding? How can you avoid being prematurely bound by one? What can you do to get out of a contract? What remedies are available if someone breaches your contract? What special rules apply to international contracts? These questions and the other important issues of legally enforceable promises are covered in the eight lectures of this course.
Contractual agreements are one of the principal mechanisms for ordering life in society. Whether a contract is written or oral, or even implicit, it carries with it all of the duties and obligations that society has endowed with the force of law.

This series of eight lectures lays a comprehensive foundation in the practical and intricate body of law that governs contracts.

For more information on this course, click here to go to the Teaching Company website.


History of the English Language

Teaching Company course on the History of the English Language.

This is another course that I can’t quite explain why I bought.  In any event, it was fascinating to learn why our language is as mixed up as it is.

From the Teaching Company course description:

Sixteen centuries ago a wave of settlers from northern Europe came to the British Isles speaking a mix of Germanic dialects thick with consonants and complex grammatical forms. Today we call that dialect Old English, the ancestor of the language nearly one in five people in the world speaks every day.

How did this ancient tongue evolve into the elegant idiom of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Twain, Melville, and other great writers? What features of modern English spelling and vocabulary link it to its Old English roots? How did English grammar become so streamlined? Why did its pronunciation undergo such drastic changes? How do we even know what English sounded like in the distant past? And how does English continue to develop to the present day?

The History of the English Language, 2nd Edition, is Professor Seth Lerer’s revised and updated investigation of the remarkable history of English, from the powerful prose of King Alfred in the Middle Ages to the modern-day sermons of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Throughout its history, English has been an unusually mutable language, readily accepting new terms and new ways of conveying meaning. Professor Lerer brings this second edition up-to-date by including discussions of the latest changes brought about through such phenomena as hip hop, e-mail, text messaging, and the world wide web.

You can learn more about this course here on the Teaching Company website.

History of the US Economy in the 20th Century

History of the US Economy in the 20th Century.

In school I was never very interested in either history or economics, so I have no idea why I bought this course; however, it turned out to be one of the most interesting courses I have ever taken – Teaching Company or otherwise. If I could only pick one thing that I learned from this course to share, it would be that the US was in many ways a different country in the year 1900 than it was in 2000.

From the course description:

Each of 10 lectures focuses exclusively on one decade to achieve a clear understanding of economic developments and outside influences on the U.S. economy.

In some cases, you examine well-defined events like the creation of the Federal Reserve or the war in Vietnam. In other lectures, you explore larger societal shifts, such as the evolving role of women in the economy and changing consumption patterns.

“Of course, knowing what happened in economic history does not offer easy answers to today’s problems,” states Professor Taylor. “Times change; the past rarely offers a perfect template for the present.

“But knowing the history does help discussions about the present to get off on the right foot, free of at least some of the myths and ignorance that can so easily lead us astray. As always in the study of history, knowing where you came from helps us to learn who you are and where you are.”

You can view more information here.

Thinking Fast and Slow

by Daniel Kahneman

“Thinking Fast and Slow” is an amazing book by the Nobel Prize winning psychologist, Daniel Kahneman.  I have enjoyed many books on the subject of how the brain works, but none has been as clear as this one.

Dr. Kahneman uses the fast and energetic System 1 along with the slow and lazy System 2 to explain how people answer different types of questions.  While our brains are powerful and usually successful, we are prone to certain types of errors because of the way our brains work and we are often much less rational (internally consistent) than we would like to think.  Like many authors, Dr. Kahneman is occasionally guilty of taking his perspective farther than is merited and portraying the opposing point of view in radical terms, but the book overall is well worth pushing through those points.

If you want to be intrigued and entertained while gaining some insight into how people think, read “Blink” by Malcolm Gladwell.  If you really just want to understand the brain and the foundations of thought, I highly recommend “Thinking Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman.

The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable

by Nassim Nicholas Taleb 

“The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable” by Nassim Nicholas Taleb was an intriguing book on an important topic.  It focuses on the disproportionate impact of rare and unpredictable “outlier” events as well as our tendency to find simplistic explanations.

Taleb explains that most of what we read in the news is worthless because the supposedly objective journalists feel compelled to attribute causes where, in fact, they cannot know the cause.  He also explains how statistics are often misused to create a false sense of certainty. One funny example is “The Turkey Problem” in which every day he is well fed the turkey becomes more convinced that he will be safe while, in reality, he is another day closer to Thanksgiving.  Another key point is that our intuition of problems follows a normal distribution, despite the reality that many types of problems have a “long tail”.

Given the significant limits to what we truly can know, I appreciate that Taleb suggests some things we can do to move forward.  it takes some thought to apply his “Venture Capitalist Approach”, but it is better than the alternatives (i.e. basing decisions on no data or basing decisions on false assumptions).

I didn’t care for the way Taleb mixed fiction with his opinions and statements of fact, though that may appeal to others.  Also, I had to get over the author’s arrogance, explaining how much money he had made and how he wasn’t going to bother proving his case.  All that said, the book is worth the effort.

As a wonderful bit of serendipity, an author I greatly respect, the Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman, wrote “The Black Swan changed my view of how the world works.”  That is a big endorsement.



Re-Imagine! Business Excellence in a Disruptive Age

by Tom Peters

“Re-Imagine! Business Excellence in a Disruptive Age” is not Tom Peters’ best received book.  The print edition was heavily criticized for the unusual formatting and use of icons, so I suppose I am glad that I listened to the audio edition.  Some feel the book rehashed his earlier ideas, though I can’t comment on that except to say that I thought it was solid.

Peters is true to his passionate and sometimes conversational style. No fan of improving quality in the old (think Six Sigma) he is all about innovating to create something new – new markets, new demographics, new talent, and a new educational system.

Imagine: How Creativity Works


Imagine: How Creativity Works

by Jonah Lehrer



I enjoyed “Imagine: How Creativity Works” by Jonah Lehrer and recommend it based on several important insights.

From blue walls to framing a question differently, there are simple tools to encourage creativity. In a couple of sentences Lehrer explained when it is helpful to focus more versus the times that it is more helpful to get away from the problem you are trying to solve. These are critical insights, specific enough to be useful in practice.

The importance of cross-functional teams, bringing in a mix of new and familiar team members, and focusing on constructive feedback were all specific and important takeaways. This has excellent parallels to the Agile software development methodology.

The “inverted ‘u’ ” of creativity can be avoided if a person makes a diligent effort to branch into new areas, but I was even more excited to consider Lehrer’s point that we know how to create a surplus of great talent. America’s ability to create world class athletes proves it. We have farm teams that begin with little league and a culture that elevates athletes to hero status. Lehrer suggests we take what we learned with football and channel it toward creativity – I would add science, technology, engineering, and math.

In other areas, the book could have been better. Lehrer points out that person-to-person interaction increases creativity. I agree, but Lehrer emphasizes the point ad nauseum and ties that closely to the idea that cities inspire creativity. Consider that the entire Greek speaking civilization had a population of 8-10 million in 400 BC when they were shaping the future of western civilization. Today, the state of Georgia in the US and the cities of Dhaka in Bangladesh, Lagos in Nigeria, and Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of the Congo all have populations roughly equal to the entire Greek civilization, yet I doubt as many world history changing ideas will come from those areas. Lehrer acknowledges other factors are involved but keeps driving the point until his bias for cities becomes distracting from other ways to accelerate creativity. We could significantly improve the level to which local communities interact without having to redesign the entire infrastructure of America.

Lehrer relies too much on anecdotes and some of his arguments are circular. At one point he uses venture capital investment as a proxy for innovation and then touts that as proof that the culture of Silicon Valley is superior for creating innovation. Silicon Valley does have a culture promoting innovation, but that is only one kind of innovation. How would Silicon Valley’s place in the ranking change if we added PhD dissertations which, by definition, address a new aspect of a topic? There are amazing mathematical and scientific insights in Russian universities that will not be identified by VCs.

I agree with Lehrer that the Internet, even with Skype video calls or Cisco Telepresence, is a poor substitute for face-to-face interaction and the spontaneous interaction that occurs in life; however, the topic deserves more consideration than he gives it. With MIT and other major universities aggressively moving into online education, collaborative innovation via the Internet is changing fast. Also, it was disappointing that Lehrer didn’t focus more on reading as a means of gaining new perspectives – there is a reason that scientific papers begin with a literature review. This is a case where his bias toward the extrovert ideal limits his creativity in identifying approaches for innovation.

Another circular argument is the use of popularity, financial success, and popular critics’ opinions as a gauge of creativity. In “The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires”, Tim Wu makes the case that the radio, television, and movie industries have been controlled by monopolistic companies and government agencies to homogenize content, making it “safer” and more mainstream. The book, “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business” by Charles Duhigg describes a computer algorithm that has uncanny success at predicting the success of new songs. Rather than being especially creative with “Finding Nemo”, perhaps Pixar has learned the algorithm for popular, mainstream movies.

In life and in business, we need creativity and high performance. In the book “Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else” Geoffrey Colvin explains what is needed for world-class performance. The amazing ability of Tiger Woods and Michael Phelps is much better explained by tremendous hard work and focus from an early age than it is on getting new ideas from other people.

Jonah Lehrer shares important insights in “Imagine: How Creativity Works,” though it only addresses one aspect of creating a successful, high-performance organization and is burdened with a few of the author’s biases.

In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives


In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives

by Steven Levy



“In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives” by Steven Levy provides interesting insight into the thinking and culture that drive Google. Levy comes across as a fan, yet reasonably open minded and willing to point out Google’s mistakes – think China.

I didn’t need quite as much information as Levy shared, but I enjoyed the book and came away with a few insights.

Levy repeatedly talks about the stunning intelligence, incredible technical skill, and passion of the people at Google and, frankly, I believe him; however, that leaves me a bit baffled. Given all that brain power, how can it be that some Google products are remarkably mediocre. Google Apps on an iPad is the first example that comes to mind. The recently launched Google Drive is another. Google Buzz could go without saying. Of course, other Google products are astounding.

It was fascinating to see the balance Google achieved in being driven and focused by the unifying force of the founders’ vision while also providing an environment in which people can spend time on whatever they think is most important. It is also interesting to hear specific examples of making decisions based on data. Thinking through these examples would be helpful to a broad range of organizations.

Levy is convinced that Larry Page and Sergey Brin’s Montessori education shaped Google’s culture of letting people focus on what interests them. He also suggests it is responsible for many of their great products and achievements. I will have to consider to what extent I believe that is true for Google and to what extent that could be leveraged at other companies. In “What Is Strategy” Michael Porter makes the point that strategy cannot easily be copied because it must be integrated with many aspects of business and the business model. For example, Porter says Delta can’t just decide to follow Southwest Airlines’ low price strategy without considering impacts to other aspects of their business and customer service model. Could Walmart use a Google-like culture? Could they use it in all areas of their operation? If they used it only in some areas, such as merchandising, would that create other problems?

Overall, “In the Plex” is a good book and worth reading for anyone interested in Google or seeing one way that a “web generation” corporate culture can work.