Popular Non-Fiction Audiobooks Read By Their Authors


I got thinking about audio again and the power of hearing directly from an author.

I remember having Tom Peters’ The Excellence Challenge on cassette and listing to it over and over in the tape deck of my 1982 Cutlass Cierra. Each segment is 10-15 minutes and filled with Tom’s energy and excitement.  He was imploring you to think different and do different. I had to track down a set of the tapes on Ebay early this year, because you can’t find them anywhere anymore (now if I can just find a cassette deck…).

That got me about thinking about how often authors read the audio edition of their book. Many books never sell enough or have the potential to sell enough copies that warrants a the production of an audiobook (but that is changing).

In that small slice that do make it, I am surprised how often books are narrated by someone else.  Maybe I shouldn’t be.  With audiobooks, we judge the book and the performance. To take the role of narrator, you need to be able to perform the book. That is not a given with all authors, but in the space of business and popular non-fiction, so many have active careers as public speakers. Not narrating your audiobook feels like a missed opportunity.

There are exceptions too. When we decided to produce a audiobook version of The Phoenix Project, we brought in a professional narrator. Performing a novel is very different animal from performing a narrative. Pat Lencioni does the same thing on his fables.

I decided to make a list of the popular non-fiction audiobooks narrated by their authors.  This is not comprehensive list but if you like the energy of the author sharing their work, here are some suggestions.

Popular Non-Fiction Audiobooks Narrated by Their Authors


Spoken Word, Revisited


I was pretty wrong the first time. I admit it.

Audio has become a growth category for publishing and a growth category for the overall media world. Audible has said publicly that 2015 growth was 40% year over year. Association of American Publishers is quoting similar numbers for audiobook downloads.

My friends at Berrett-Koehler told me at their Author Marketing Retreat that everything they are publishing as a book is also being produced as an audiobook.  That is an amazing shift because traditionally only a small slice of books got converted.

The general rule of thumb is that audiobooks will sell about 10% of what the print book does. Given the fixed cost of narration and production, the dollars didn’t work.  What has changed is audiobooks can be produced more inexpensively and there are many more outlets, in particular on the digital side, for audio to be distributed.

With that kind of growth, authors in the world of business and non-fiction are using audio in many different ways to experiment with new projects and expand their audience.

Many authors, like Tim Ferris, Gretchen Rubin, Dave Ramsey and the Freakonomics guys have picked up audio as another broadcast medium as a way to extend the coverage of their previous works. These authors have adopted audio like they did blogging, Twitter, and Instagram before it. Podcasting works as an effective form of marketing as shows they host alongside a co-host or interviewee.

Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History and Steven Johnson’s Wonderland are also authors using limited edition podcasts to extend the stories with a more narrative driven format. Their episodes are produced as native for audio and sound like they could be on NPR. Gladwell did original reporting for his 10 part series. With three episodes released, Johnson tells stories from his upcoming book.

This latter approach to how authors are using audio is getting close to what I have been hoping for.  I even may have been a little right.

The original form of the art is usually the best. This American Life and RadioLab are conceived to be listened to; reading the manuscript is not the same. Movies derived from books always lack the depth of the prose. I wonder if an audiobook original would be more successful? Has there been any audiobook originals?

Maybe someone has been listening.

My first exhibit of the original audiobook #AskGaryVee by the loquacious and enuthastic Gary Vaynerchuk. Following on the his popular 500 episode run of WineLibrary.tv, his new video show is built with the same spontaneity but this time, for the realm of business folks working the hustle. He pulls questions from twitter and answer them in a live stream of consciousness on the show. The video format that allowed him to easily transfer the content from the show to a bestselling book to an audiobook. The last is most interesting to me.

The audiobook version doesn’t begin right. Gary reads the introduction with a slow, forced cadence. It feels off because it’s not how we hear Gary anywhere else. The magic starts when they turn to the questions from the show and he answers them in the improv style delivery  where Gary best operates.  I wish the whole audiobook was delivered that way. This is what I wanted on the Crush It! audiobook when it promised additional material not found in the book. While I also have other problems with how the answers are broken up across tracks and the lack of track labels, this audiobook starts to feel like its own stand-alone product produced for audio consumption.

Seth Godin’s Leap First and Brene Brown’s The Power of Vulnerability are even better examples that capture the energy of a live moment recorded.  Both of these recordings were done in front of a live audience and you can sense that. Something happens in that space. Their publisher SoundsTrue has a long history of recording the talks of spiritual leaders speaking to groups.  With these talks, you feel like you are sitting there listening. The talks are conceived with the intention of being delivered as spoken word, not written word or a presentation with slides. Sadly, they are the only business self-help titles on the site.

There is more opportunity here.  I can feel it in my bones.


What I Read – September 2016


Grit by Angela Duckworth -This is my favorite book of 2016, hands-down. Duckworth theory is that effort is the key to achievement because it builds skills AND contributes to achievement. Our desire to engage in continued effort comes from passion and perseverance. Her narrative delightfully balances research, case studies and memoir. Her own research is rich and interesting, but even more so as she connects the dots with other researchers like Carol Dweck, Anders Ericsson,  Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and others. I’ll be writing a longer summary of the book soon, but until then this is a MUST.

Graphic Novels

Black Panther by Ta-Nehisi Coates and Brian Stelfreeze – Coates is telling a big story in the newest reboot of Black Panther. What makes the story special is that everyone is right but no one agrees.  What happens when your superpowers can’t save what you love most? Must.

What I Read – August 2016



The Aspirational Investor by Ashvin Chhabra – I rarely read personal finance books because the advice is so repeated – savings more than you spend & balance your investment classes. Chhabra makes a run at doing something different. Most is the same advice but his take on what gets people on the Forbes 400 list and three tranches of investing is interesting. It needed more interesting. Could.

The Marathon Monks of Mount Hiei by John Stevens – There are a set of monks outside Kyoto who practice by running.  Monks start by running 100 days of kaihōgyō and very select few continue into a 1000 day challenge that takes seven years to complete. In modern times, only 46 men have completed the longer challenge.  The book describes the history of the Tendai at Mount Hiei, the requirements of kaihōgyō, and the profile of the people who have completed. Fascinating. Could.

Zen in the Art of Archery by Eugen Herrigel – This book was one of the first to introduce Zen to the West. A German philosophy professor searches for a kyūdō master to teach him and satisfy his curosity in mysticism as he perceived Zen to be. Herrigel, in this short book, writes most of the narrative in disbelief and frustration by the seeming indirect and oblique instruction he receives. Even after he passes his teacher’s test, Herrigel worries the reader won’t believe or understand the journey he has taken. I can relate to the student in protest; his skepticism created a distance for me. Could.

The Theory That Would Not Die by Sharon Bertsch Mcgrayne – I have been fascinated by Bayes’ theorem for some time and this book covers the 325 year history of the concept. For a long time, many people thought you could only predict the likelihood of something happening after you observed it happen at least once. Thomas Bayes, Pierre-Simon Laplace and a host of others that followed showed you could take a host of variables and their probablities to help predict these unseen events. Even more importantly, you could keep feeding back new information to improve the predictive outcomes as you progressed. The theory has been used to find lost submarines, break German codes during World War II, show the underrepresented risks with flying large numbers of bomber flights with nuclear weapons onboard.  Heavy on history, my favorite material was in the latter half of the book with the stronger emphasis on modern application.  Could for most.

Graphic Novels

Aya of Yop City by Maguerite Abouet and Clément Oubrerie – I dropped into the second book in the six book series. The fictional story follows Aya and a cast of characters in Côte d’Ivoire during the 1970’s. I remember seeing a quote from the author saying the goal of the series was to create a more normal portrayal of Africans, one that breaks down the assumptions and stereotypes. The story has shunned relatives “out in the village”, searches for love, and people who are just trying to make their lives a little better. Should.


Chef’s Table – Just finished watching the first season of this documentary series that introduces us to innovative chefs from around the world. This was amazing brain candy for me. I love watching people who do things differently and can explain why. And I love the food they make. I am heading into Season Two immediately. Must.

Kubo and The Two Strings – Fun. Beautiful. Loved it. Must.

The Many Lives of Books

There are so many ways books fit into our lives – big and small.

I bought a guide to craft beer in Japan prior to my trip two years ago. The book was clearly a project of passion for the author and so helpful for a English speaker in a kanji based country.

Aaron Draplin’s new book displays his body of work in full color glory. He is so prolific that the work itself creates the visual narrative. His dad is there. His dog is there.  I am there along side him.

Dan Roam has one page in the Back of the Napkin that is worth the entire cost of the book. It’s page 141 and it tells me exactly what kind of picture to make in answering any question that arises. Everything else in the book supports that idea.

In Cultivating The Empty Field, Hongzhi speaks to me with one line:

A rock contains jade without knowing the jade’s flawlessness.

My favorite book by Brene Brown doesn’t exist as a book. It’s an eight hour audio session that SoundsTrue published. She talked about all of her best ideas there. It’s not a book, but I still think of it like it is one.

I remember reading Tom Peters’ Re-Imagine and counting the different books he quoted and referenced.  He gave life to all of those books in the unique way he connected them together.

I have a book in a milk carton.

I have an unbook.

I have architectural portfolio that’s been depicted as a graphic novel.

I have the Birds of North America guide that my grandmother and I would use to identified what was at the feeder.

I have tiny Golden Books.

And of course, I wrote a book about books.


A Third Edition for The 100 Best



The 100 Best is one of those projects whose path I never saw, whose trail disappeared for awhile and since its publication, has taken me to places I could never have predicted.

I wrote about some of the quirks and coincidences that have stayed with me. There are many more.

There were the author photos that never saw the light of day. There was the two weeks at a table double checking the cross-references with Jack. The guy who said our book was like Google on paper. We signed alot of books; one Saturday my oldest son came and helped. We got published in the Harvard Business Review. And who doesn’t love seeing their book in translated and interpeted into another language.


We held events at Harvard and Stanford with faculty authors from The 100 Best. I got up early on a Wednesday and drove eight hours from Milwaukee to Lexington, Kentucky for a book signing that no one showed up for.  Ryan Louie tweets me every time he finishes another book and he has read 88 of the 100 books to date.

With the publication of the third edition of The 100 Best Business Books of All Time, I started to think back to what else I could share to show other views into the work we did.

I was searching back through old files I found a talk I did at the Commonwealth Club of California in 2009. I talk about some of the great anecdotes from the books organized around five themes that Jack and I saw show up over and over again. By this point, I have given this speech a couple dozen times.  It not perfect, but it conveys the material well.


I also remembered that I wrote an essay on how to get more out of the business books you read. The piece was published on ChangeThis and has been downloaded over 6500 times. We added the essay to the end of the paperback edition of The 100 Best.



So much to be grateful for in connection with this project.

If you’d like a copy, the new edition of The 100 Best Business Books of All Time is available fine book retailers everywhere.



What I Read – July 2016

Non Fiction

The Humor Code by Peter McGraw and Joel Warner – I have been intrigued by Peter McGraw quest to unlock what makes jokes funny since his profile in Wired. The book he co-wrote with Joel Warner doesn’t get you more or maybe it does but I stopped reading. The entire book is written from Warner’s perspective, so much so that he really should be the only listed author. This gives it the feel of a really long magazine profile that wanders too much and where Warner is a little too close to his subject. What I really wanted was to hear Peter’s authoritive voice like you find Daniel Ariely’s books on decision making or Jared Diamond’s works on anthropology. Skip.

Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg – I saw this book recommending so many times, I finally picked it up. Each chapter is one to three pages and shares a barrier or exercise that can help your writing practice. Natalie is a long time Zen practitioner and that is a large influence on the book. I like her emphasis on writing as a practice. Should.


Scriptnotes – I am a semi-regular listener to this screenwriting podcast by John August and Craig Mazin. What I like is that they cover the craft and the business of writing for Hollywood.  They just celebrated five years of doing the podcast and they show there is so much to talk about in this space.  My interest lies in hearing how they discuss creativity and making money from it. In episode #256, they have this great rift on originality (start ~36:40) that applies to anyone working in the arts. Should.

Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru – Robbins has a new documentary on Netflix. The two hour feature follows him and the 2500 attendees to his Date with Destiny seminar.  You also follow a handful of people who are deeply moved by the experience. Your level of enjoyment will be likely equal to your acceptance of Robbins and his transformative techniques. Could.


What I Read – June 2016


Not Invented Here by Ramon Vullings and Marc Heleven – This is a fun run through being better at taking ideas and inspiration from other places. Lots of going framing and examples. My favorite – “In Germany–companies such as Daimler, Bayer, Siemens, and SAP all have an entire department of Grundsatzfragen (in English: a department of Fundamental Questions). It’s clear these companies see questionsing as a strategic asset.” Should.

Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert – Many people will be drawn in and love the inspiration that Gilbert provides. We live in a world where many people need permission practice their art. This is a beautiful answer for them.  For me, I feel I might have read it at the wrong time or I too easily recognized her angle. Could.

Graphic Novels

Authority Volume 1 by Warren Ellis, Bryan Hitch and Paul Neary – This is a solid 12 issue run with a interesting set of heroes, a dimension traveling ship and bad bad guys. Should.

Letter 44 by Charles Soule and Alberto Jiménez Alburquerque – I read on through Volume 2 and Volume 3. It was OK.  I felt the idea lost its legs and got a little predictable as the story went on. Could.


Cool Japan Guide by Abby Denson – I really enjoyed this comics drawn travel guide to Japan. The book has a nice geek flavor to it with emphasis on manga, food and quirky places to visit. The book is also fun and personal. It is a nice read for anyone planning a trip. Should.


Mozart in The Jungle Season 1 – The appeal for me is in both my inner band geek and the quirky, human way the story plays out. Should.

Drawing is Magic by John Hendrix and Draw Your Big Idea by Nora Herting and Heather Willems – I keep buying these cute books with themed drawing prompts. They are not enough to get over the bump to start; that is my own challenge. Could.

What I Read – May 2016


Connected by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler – I have been wanting to read this book for a long time. Understanding how we are connected and how ideas and influences pass between us is fascinating to me and strongly connected to my work.  The authors draw from a wide range of sources and from their own original research. Strangely, the book overall suffers from too much research and data with not enough connective tissue to form a smoother overall narrative.  Could.

Draplin Design Co. – Pretty Much Everything by Aaron James Draplin – A beautiful capture of Draplin’s 20 year body of work – Snowboarder, Field Notes, Thick Lines, and all the logos. A wonderful testament to being prolific, taking inspiration from everywhere and just being nice Should.

Graphic Novels

Saga Book 1 by Brian K Vaughan and Fiona Staples – The series is as wonderful and real. It’s about war and family and like all great stories, characters doing things they never knew they could. This version is a collection of the first 18 issues. Must.

Lando by Charles Soule and Alex Maleev – It is a fun single arc story with Lando Calrissian and his advisor Lobot. They pick up a few others to help with a heist and quickly end up over their heads. I thought it was good-ish. He felt more like previous owner of the Millenium Falcon and less like leader of Cloud City in this one. Could.

Captain America by Ed Brubaker and various artists – I checked Volume 1 and Volume 2 of Brubaker’s run on Captain America.  I liked Volume 1 alot. You can see its influence on the CA movies. Volume 2 was OK. It started a completely new story line, bringing in Winter Soldier and Red Skull, but didn’t feel as compelling. Volume 1 Should, Volume 2 Could.

The Manhattan Projects Volume 1 by Jonathan Hickman and Nick Pitarra – This is a re-imagining of the what it was like during World War II and the bringing together of the most brilliant men of the time. In this retelling, creating the A-bomb is a sideshow project for much more important matters. As I kept reading, I wasn’t sure if I should keep going, and still…I turned the page. I will be moving onto Volume 2 and you Should too.

Letter 44 Volume 1 by Charles Soule and Alberto Jiménez Alburquerque – This is another alt-history where the 44th President shows up for his first day on the job and finds out there is a secret space mission that has been underway for three years. It quickly gets more complicated and intersting. Moving onto Vol 2 and 3. Should.


Been out watching all the superhero movies as they released in theaters.

Here is my ranked order:

  1. Captain America: Civil War – Best of the bunch. Marvel has figured out that right mix of drama, action and humor. Really bad things happen in this movie and that provides so much fuel to propel this movie from start to finish. And if you have been watching the whole MCU arc from the start, it is really starting to payoff for viewers. MUST.
  2. Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice – Really bad things happening in the DCU but they seem to weigh down the characters. Clark and Bruce carry the weight of their worldviews. Wonder Woman tells us she left because she gave up on humanity. This leaves Lex Luthor seems as the only character with curosity and vision. The series needs some hope, because they is what superheros are all about. Should.
  3. X-Men: Apocalypse – The weakest of the pre-summer releases. It felt like it needed to be big for big’s sake.  The three decade long run across the three most recent movies takes a heavy toll on the continuity, not just with the prior X-men movies but the earlier ones in this series. Big, confusing and a more than a little random. Could.

What I Read – April 2016


The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor – This book follows perfectly the script for the modern business book. Achor lays out the problem: When comparing studies done on psychology, for every 17 studies on negative psychology, there is only one on positive psychology. He defines his language: “Happiness is the joy we feel striving after our potential.” And then he delivers utility backed up by the best psychology research of the last 15 years. Here are some things you can do to have a more positive mindset: meditate, find something to look forward to, commit conscious acts of kindness,  infuse positvity into your surroundings, exercise, spend money on experiences-not things, exercise a personal strength. Should

Culturematic by Grant McCracken – I am a fan of McCracken and had been sitting on this book for too long.   As an anthropologist, he looks for the things that make and shape culture. In his watching, McCracken has started to see a pattern for how memes, ideaviruses, and metaphoric mapmaking happens. He points to food trucks, Apple Genius Bar, Mystery Science Theater 3000, Wordle, NFL Films. The book is written as a hypothesis and that might frustrate some readers, but there is enough pattern matching to satisfy those looking for utility. I know this because I see culturematics all around me – How It Should Have Ended?, Portlandiathe $100 giveaway at 2012 World Domination Summit,  Shasha Martin’s journey cooking a weekly family meal from every country on the planet, Tyler Murphy filling in the blanks with Ben Solo and Chewbecca, Wine Library TV and now #AskGaryVee, Morioka Shoten Ginza: Japan’s One Book Bookstoresketchnoting, Black Lives MatterUniform Project, PechaKucha 20×20, WeWork Should

Graphic Novels

East of West Volume 5 by Hickman, Dragotta, and Martin – Just out paperback. This series is so good. I might need to start buying single issues. I haven’t done that in 35 years. They spent five issues just thickening the plot. Must

The Return of Zita The Spacegirl by Ben Hatke – This is the final book in the current trilogy. Hatke is clever with character, there is great action, and so. much. heart. My favorite line which sums up the series

“[Zita], you’ve helped a lot ‘o folk. An’ you did it by knowin’ when t’do what’s right, not by worryin’ ’bout what’s allowed.”

We need more Zita in the world. Must

Hawkeye vs Deadpool by Gerry Duggan, Matteo Lolli and Jacopo Camagni – If you are going to do Deadpool, it has to be funny. I thought this one was OK. Could

Little Robot by Ben Hatke – I started looking for more books by Mr. Hatke.  This one works well for a younger (and older) audience.  The book is about a little girl who finds a robot that fell off a truck and what happens when the factory finds out. It’s also about how we do the best we can for the things we care about and how our best sometimes isn’t good enough. Should


Zen Flesh, Zen Bones complied by Paul Reps and Nyogen Senzaki – This compliation of Zen stories and koans is made up of four smaller works: the modern 101 Zen Stories, the 13th century Gateless Gate, Ten Bulls and Centering. Many of the stories like A Cup of Tea and The Sound of One Hand have entered common culture as a result of its publication. Must

Reboot Podcast with Jerry Colonna – Jerry is doing something important on this podcast.  You could call it business with heart.  You could call it enlightened leadership.  I find he is at his best when he is coaching startup founders through their current challenge. He is so good at meeting them where they are and helping them see their struggle from a slighly different place. Should


Flour Water Salt Yeast: The Fundamentals of Artisian Bread and Pizza by Ken Forkish –  The book opens with his story of leaving a sales job at IBM to learn to bake bread in California, Minnesota, and France.  The author ended up in Portland and he now bread bakes and pizza makes. The book is a wonderful combination of narrative, better strategy for home bread making and infinite combinations of loaves. Probably need to go buy this one for my shelf. Should

WTF Podcast with Marc Maron – Lorne Michaels – Maron tried out for Saturday Night Live and failed twenty years ago. In his style, he resolves that open wound with Michaels and explores what makes SNL so amazing. Should

The Voyeur’s Motel by Gay Talese – It is impossible to read this and not have some reaction. It is the best piece of writing I have read so far in 2016. Must

WTF Podcast with Marc Maron – Louis CK – This is a great episode about the behind-the-scenes making of Horace and Pete.  I have only watched first episode so I can’t speak for the series, but I found the creative process that Louis CK described as fascinating. We wanted to make this thing that didn’t really exist – somewhere between theater and episodic television.  He wanted to say things and do things that didn’t match his past work. He wanted to show it to people as fast as he could put it out and without any warning or preview. He was able to get Edie Falco, Alan Alda, and Steve Buscemi to sign on to the show with one script (that should be endorsement enough to watch it all). Marc does such of good job of giving Louis space to talk about the emotions of making the series. Must

What I Read – March 2016

I made a New Year’s resolutions in 2015 and 2016 to read more books and share what it is I have been reading. I added some new ratings with the intention of being more helpful – Must, Should, Could, and Skip.


How to Cook Your Life by Dogen Zenji, commentary by Kosho Uchiyama Roshi, translated by Thomas Wright – These is the Instructions to the Tenzo, or cook,  written by the founder of Zen Buddhism. This was a temple position that always existed but he elevated its importance in his time through these writings. The directions are simple and provide a view for bringing practice into everyday life. Dogen says, “Maintain an attitude that tries to build great temples from ordinary greens.”Must if you practice Zen

Happier by Tal Ben-Shahar – The best takeaway from the book is that greater happiness comes from taking time to self-reflect through things like meditation or keeping a journal. I had a hard time connecting with the rest of the abstract feeling material. Skip

One Bird, One Stone by Sean Murphy – This is a collection of modern stories from the people who brought Zen Buddhism from Japan to the United States and the first generation of American teachers who helped it take root. Murphy interviewed as many of them as he could and the book is structured with that narrative interspersed with collected stories. I really liked this book. Should if interested in Zen

Sprint by Jake Knapp with John Zeratsky and Braden Kowitz – Three Google Venture partners show how to run one week sprints that create workable, successful prototypes.They have determined the people you need and exactly how you should spend your time over those five days. Their process design is firmly seated in insights about where ideas come from and the challenges of group decision making. My favorite piece was a first time exposure to the almost 50 year old technique of “How Might We…?” This book is written to address a specific problem in a highly structured way. I left wanting something more modular or something with more visual treatment that would have been short and more effective at conveying this material. Should if you innovate or facilitate.

Graphic Novels

All Star Superman by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely – Morrison’s World of Superman is fun and classic. Strange things happen. Everyone feels a little paranoid. You can say that about many of his works, but underneath it all he gets what Superman is about – the secret identity, the fight with Lex, and, of course, Lois. We get to see all the characters – Jimmy, Bizarro, Ma and Pa.  And it all starts with the question – what if Superman were dying? MUST

Nichiren by Masahiko Murakami and Ken Tanaka – This is a manga version of the life of Nichiren, a buddhist monk that lived in the 13th century. He is founded a entire branch to Buddhism solely based on the teaching of the Lotus Sutra and the practice of chanting the phrase “Nam Myoho-Renge-Kyo”. Courtney Love actively practices.  This fictionalized version of Nichiren’s life is just OK. I wanted something more like Osamu Tezuka’s Buddha. I am not sure I came away with a good sense of the monk’s life or how this practice came to be. Skip

The Zen of Steve Jobs by Caleb Melby, Forbes, and JESS3  – This short graphic novel was published in 2012 and it attempts to shed light on the relationship between Jobs and his Zen teacher Kobun Chino Otogawa Roshi. It is fictionalized account taken from interviews with those who studied with Kobun and alongside Jobs. The interchanges feel real. The jumps back into his real life don’t feel like the right cause and effect. Zen practice isn’t that obvious. Even with my complaints, I love that this exists. Could to Should

Guardians of the Galaxy (#7-#25,War of Kings Vol 1 and Vol 2 and Realm of Kings) – The rest of the series was messy for me. Lots of characters, over the top action to keep the universe whole and shifting versions of one side versus another with the Guardians stuck in the middle.  I realize that sounds like every comic book storyline, but there are some that do it better than others. Could

Multiversity by Grant Morrison – I tried. I didn’t get it. Skip

Other Stuff

The Expanse on SyFy – I gave it two episodes to see if it would stick and I ended up buying the whole series to binge watch in two days. There is something to this series.  The characters are interesting. There are mysteries to solve. Should

How To Cook Your Life (with Edward Espe Brown and directed by Doris Dörrie) – I found this documentary as I would searching for Dogen’s version. I bought it on a lark. The film is largely a collection of Brown’s dharma talks during cooking classes he held. Could



The Few and The Many


In 1924, a young quality engineer named Joseph Juran went to work for Western Electric in their Hawthorne Works facility in Cicero, Illinois. If you were born after 1970, it is likely you won’t appreciate, or even know, Juran’s employer. Western Electric was the manufacturing arm of AT&T and responsible for supplying the entire technological platform that transmitted telephone calls in the United States for most of the 20th century.

Juran’s hire had to do with the growing installed base of Western Electric. With much of the telephony infrastructure buried in the ground, there came to be a high importance put on the quality of that equipment, as digging switches back out of the ground was expensive and time-intensive. Engineers devoted enormous efforts to improving the reliability of the transmission infrastructure.

The Hawthorne Works turned out to be a leader in this regard, an incubator for some of the most important management insights of the twentieth century. Walter Shewhart introduced the concept of statistical process control the same year Juran joined the company. Up to that point, the standard practice was to test every unit at the end of the assembly to be certain it worked for shipping into the field. Stewhart introduced the concept of control charts that could monitor the process and identify what variables influenced the end quality of the product.(Shewhart’s work also showed that when defects were detected, people often overreacted and made problems worse.)

Another set of studies started around the same time. Engineers decided to test how lighting levels affected worker productivity. Small changes in either up or down created short-term increases in productivity, but nothing that ever lasted. Further experiments were conducted with changes to pay rates, break times, and work hours. It took thirty years for Henry Landsberger to correctly identify that the subjects of these experiments were responding favorably to fact they were being watched and paid attention to. We now know this as the Hawthorne Effect.

Juran himself came to series of important conclusions in his near two decades with Western Electric. His most important and well known observation is one we have all experienced at one time or another. When the root causes of a given problem are categorized and sorted, “a relative few account for the bulks of the defects.” While some strongly associate this finding with manufacturing, Juran pointed to similar phenomenon managers experienced in looking at the causes for employee absenteeism or shop floor accidents.

This insight has been given several names over the years: the 80/20 Principle, The Vital Few and the Trivial Many, but for the most widely used moniker we need to wind back the clock twenty years and travel back across the Atlantic.


In 1896, an Italian economist named Vilfredo Pareto started the process of publishing the lecture notes he was using to teach classes at the Laussane School in Switzerland. It would take two years and three volumes for Pareto to fully release Cours d’economie politique, a preview to his 1906 landmark work Manuel d’economie politique.

Economics as a field of study was just starting to coming into own and the same basic concepts that are still taught in college economics courses were formed during this time. The thesis that people make rational choices was presented and accepted. The motivation for these actors crystallized with the theory that individuals maximize utility and firms maximize profits. Pareto himself contributes the idea that prices reach a point of equilibrium in the tug between supply and demand, but Pareto made an even important observation in Cours, one that moves him beyond his cohort of nineteenth century neoclassical economists.

Pareto in his lectures had been pointing out that land ownership is significantly skewed to a small portion of the population. His research showed that 80% of the land was in the possession of just 20% of the people. Further research indicated similar patterns in other countries like England and that the same skewed distribution held for the distribution of income as well.

Pareto dies in 1907, never aware of what impact that insight would have.


Juran in the late 1930s was promoted, becoming the corporate industrial engineer for Western Electric. Among his duties were sharing best practices with other companies. One of his visits led him to General Motors where he had a chance meeting with the manager in charge of executive compensation. The manager shared with Juran a model of salary distribution that matched the Italian economist’s findings. This was Juran’s first exposure to Pareto’s work and it would stick with him for a long time.

Juran, like many, spent the 1940’s in support of the war effort. The engineer took a job in the government as an administrator. The six week “temporary” assignment lasted four years. After leaving government, Juran pursued teaching and speaking.

In writing his first book, Quality Control Handbook, he was faced with the need for a shorthand description for section titled “Maldistribution of Quality Loss.” Juran showed a variety of graphs displaying the 80/20 phenomenon and under one attributed Pareto. Without the quality movement of the 1980’s and Juran’s rise to one of the period’s gurus, it is unlikely we would be using terms like Pareto’s Law or Partian distributions. Parteo’ Cours was never even translated into English from the original French.

Pareto and Juran always emphasized the importance of those Vital Few, but what if the Trivial Many weren’t trivial?


The standard assumption in creation of most products and services is that demand will appear at random intervals, spread out evenly throughout the day.  The web server is designed to handle an average number of hits each day. Cellphone towers are erected to provide coverage based on the average number of calls users make given the demographics of the area. Albert-Laszlo Barabasi believes this thinking is flawed.

Barabasi is a scientist at Notre Dame who has been studying networks for last 20 years. What first brought Barabasi to prominence was his research into nodes and their connections within a network. The classic view in network theory stated nodes (which you can think of as people or websites) in a given network were connected to roughly the same number of nodes and that the variation in connections was random in nature, meaning some average number of connections with some nodes getting more and others less. In other words, everyone had roughly the same number of friends they stayed in contact with, plus or minus a few.

Barabassi’s insight was discovering the number of connection were not rough equally, but the exact opposite: they varied widely. True nature of networks are millions of nodes with a few connections and a few super nodes that had hundreds of millions of connections. The Internet with its millions of websites and handful of megasites like Google and Yahoo make this conclusion seems obvious, but ten years ago this was not as clear. This same phenomenon has since been seen in areas ranging from the distribution of protein interactions of yeast to how drug adoption is affected by the relationships physicians have with one another.  And again, the appearance of partian distributions with the many and the few.

The latest research from Barabasi takes an even more interesting step. Scientists have long wanted to create models for human activity. The idea of asking a million people to log what they have done and where they have been over last seven days makes the task impractical. But now the data collected by mobile telecommunications companies, credit card processors, and internet service providers is giving us exactly that view and again we see the emergence of the many and the few.

Barabasi’s analysis shows again there is nothing random about what we do. In a world of averages, we would send our email, evenly spaced throughout the day. Now think about how you really behave. Seven rapid fire email replies on your Blackberry, ahead of your first morning meeting. 20 clicks navigating the New York Times website to find out the midday news, followed by a lunch. Barabasi describes our pattern of activity as one of bursts and lulls, requiring a shift in emphasis from Juran’s Vital Few to Barabasi’s Vital Many.

Maybe the few and the many indicate something more?


Pareto, Juran, and Barbasi all uncovered a different kind of phenomenon in their pursuits. The more we look the more we seem to find these situations that display the few and the many. Nature is full of them from the magnitudes of earthquakes to intensity of solar flares. Many sociological trends form with same distribution whether the loss of life in armed conflicts or sexual partners in social networks. In each of these examples, the Infinite Many and the Extreme Few are boldly evident. Yet, we act as if they are unfamiliar.

The Extreme Few are always a surprise whether it is a volcano erupting in Iceland or a Dow Jones decline of 40%. And the Infinite Many go unnoticed on the shelves of used bookstores or as small price movements in the companies of the Russell 3000.  So, why do we expect the world to be the same day in and day out? And what is the underlying model that we may not even be aware of driving that thinking? For the answer, we just need to watch to the longest running game show on network television.


On November 5th 2009, The Price Is Right celebrated the airing of its 7,000th episode. The longest running gameshow on television now hosted by Drew Carey celebrated the anniversary by playing three games from the first episode that aired in September 1972 – Any Number, Bonus Game, and Double Prices. Missing from the festivities sadly was the most popular game in the history of The Price is Right.

Of course, I am talking about Plinko, the game that best combines the best of the classic game show: knowledge of product prices and random chance. In the game that debuted on January 3, 1983, each contestant is given the opportunity to acquire five round discs by guessing which number is incorrect in the two-digit price of a product. Each correct guess earns the player another disc.

After the pricing portion of the game is complete, the player takes the discs they won and proceeds up a small, seven step staircase to the top of the Plinko board. Looking down, the player sees 13 rows of pins, each one offset from the next, and a series of chutes at the bottom labeled with varying amounts of money. The player lays each disc flat on the board and lets go. With each pin hit the disc falls to the left or right as it bounced down the board until eventually landing in one of the chutes, each labelled with a dollar amount.

Those familiar with Japanese culture can’t help but notice the similarity of in both name and construction with the immensely popular game pachinko. Played in huge parlors, pachinko machines use steel balls that fall from the top of the machine and hit metal pins as they fall. Most balls fall to the bottom, while a select few drop into gates placed throughout the board which in turn releases more balls for the player to use.

The origin of both these games goes back even further though to an Englishman named Sir Francis Galton. A half-cousin of Charles Darwin, Galton was in his own right an incredible polymath developing one of first methods for classifying fingerprints, initiating some of the first scientific study of meteorology, and coined the unanswerable notion of “nature versus nuture.”

But Galton was also a teacher and one of his more difficult tasks was teaching students the concepts he was developing around probability theory. These concepts were difficult to convey in equation and theory, so Galton created his own Plinko board. He referred to his invention as The Quincunx, the name for the Roman coin with five markings arranged in the pattern of a four point square with fifth center point, the same pattern Galton used to arrange the pins on the board.  With the construction of the Quincunx, Galton could physically show students how random behavior manifested itself.


As the beads fall through the pins of the Quincunx, they accumulate into piles at the bottom of the board. Most fall to the center, having bounced back and forth at each row. You can imagine the probabilities matching that of flipping a coin, with the equal likelihood of a head or tail resembling the chances of the bead falling to the right or left. And as you also know from flipping coins, you can get a run of heads or tails. This same mechanism means beads will from time to time end up at the edges of the board.

Piled up the beads make a familiar shape: the bell shaped curve. This picture is the visual indicator of the random world at work and there are important qualities to note.  The centered peak communicates both the average as well as the midway point or median of the distribution. The height of the piles falls to the right and left showing the quickly decreasing likelihood of beads falling onto those outlying piles.

Looking at the piles of those beads, randomness starts to take on a different meaning. The majority of the beads fall close to average. Human height is a good example of this.  The average male in the U.S. is 5′ 10″ and the average female is 7 inches shorter at 5’3″. Since height follows a bell curve or Gaussian distribution, we know where the peak lies. The more interesting part is that 99% of the population falls within nine inches on either side of the average. As you move away from the average, the probability of occurrences drops quickly. The bell curve predicts that only 28 people in the U.S. would reach a height of  7′ 1″, an altitude shared by basketball greats Shaquille O’Neil and Wilt Chamberlain.

So, when we use the word random, the popular intent is to describe when something unpredictable has taken place. Random in the real world is quite predictable and the realm of possibilities are relatively narrow. This is the predictable reality that Walter Stewhart used to anticipate and improve the quality of product coming off the assembly lines at Western Electric.

The other adjective commonly used for these distributions is normal. They appear so often and are such a part of how we view the world that their occurrence barely raises an eyebrow and that leaves us blind to other forces at work.


Chris Anderson described the Infinite Many in his book The Long Tail. He concentrated on how the Internet would bring the obscure to the masses with the infinite shelf space of the digital world. On the other end was Nassim Nicholas Taleb and his book The Black Swan. Taleb pointed to the events that, when looked at through a lens of normal distributions, were nearly impossible and instead caught us painfully off guard with their more common than predicted appearances. Power laws are where the extreme few meet infinite many.

Power Laws curves aren’t “normal”. They aren’t ordinary. And they don’t take place in a narrow range.

In the world of Power Laws, the Extreme Few aren’t 8 feet tall. No, the wide ranges in which these curves operate would predict that at least one person on the planet would be 800 feet tall. That claim may sound preposterous in the realm of human height, but it illustrates the point that Extreme Few are much greater than anything we would expect in the world of the normal distributions.


The experience curve is probably the best known occurrence of a power law equation in business. The topic was made famous by Boston Consulting Group in 1970’s when they confirmed earlier findings that showed costs fall 15 to 30 percent for every doubling of output. Moore Law’s represents the technology fueled version of this effect. Take disk drives: the cost of a megabyte of storage has been falling at 5 percent per quarter for the last thirty years.

The human senses operate on a scale that follows power laws as well. Imagine the holiday season approaching and a new determination on your part to outdo the rest of the neighbors with this year’s Christmas lights. While you’d think a trip to your discount retailer to double your inventory of stringed lights would solve the problem, the field of psychophysics has shown a more expensive solution is necessary.  Getting twice as many lights would certain make a difference, but it would not make your house twice as bright. The very idea simply doubling the number of lights implies a linear relationship between wattage and perceived brightness, another prominent mental model in how we think about the world.  Our sense of brightness instead works on a curve that says to light up the house twice as bright, we would actually need four times the number of lights. So, save up your money, you can always do it next year.


There are two mental modals that dominate business. The first model is that of averages. Think about the questions we ask.  What’s the average order size for our customers? What’s the average wait time for customers who call? Albert-Laszlo Barabasi fought this thinking in his research to understand the frequency of human activity.  Bell-shaped, normal distributions with their average-based peaks become the de facto picture we use to see the world.

Linearity is the another crutch. The picture here is the X-Y chart with a line pointing upward at a 45 degree angle. Think of how often we assume that one more unit of input will get get us that additional unit of output.

Power Laws are about unequal outcomes and unpredictable extremes, and using these new models in business can fundamentally change how we operate every function of the organization.  Strategy, probably the most familiar with these dynamics, changes from a discussion of “do more to get more” to one that respects the position of the company in the market and leverages the unique advantages. Marketing becomes very interested in the perception of our senses and starts to realize that incremental shifts are barely noticeable. Innovation becomes a search that matches the foraging pattern of spider monkeys in the rain forest – many small moves punctuated by a few big moves to new areas.

Start looking around. Power laws are everywhere and they affect everything we do.

What I Read – February 2016



I made a New Year’s resolutions in 2015 and 2016 to read more books and share what it is I have been reading.


Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul by Stuart Brown – Really interesting look at a kind of activity that we don’t think about much. Brown draw from a wide range of disciplines to make his case for the importance of play. “The opposite of play is not work; it is depression.” Even with that praise, I lost some interest about halfway through and decided to move onto another book. Still recommend it. 7.5/10

Non-Violent Communication: A Language of Life by Marshall Rosenburg – I finally read this book after hearing about it for a very long time. I like the model alot – observations, feelings, needs, requests. Rosenberg had been doing working in the field for so long that the book is filled with nothing but stories, similar style to Covey’s 7 Habits. Even if the title doesn’t feel right (I didn’t for me), consider giving it a shot. I plan to do a yearly read on the book from this point forward. 10/10

Graphics Novels

East of West Volume 2, Volume 3, and Volume 4 by Jonathan Hickman and Nicholas Dragotta- I continue to really enjoy this series. There are certainly well worn tropes in use but I can’t help but like this ride into the Apacolypse. 9/10

Lazarus Volume 4 by Greg Rucka and Michael Lark – The story pushes forward as House Caryle struggles with war on several fronts and Forever continues to save the day. 9/10

Ms Marvel Volume 4 by G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona- Kamala dealing with an ex-boyfriend, family, the boy next door and parallel universes. Luckily, she is gets a little help from her namesake – Captain Marvel. Liking this series more and more. 9/10

Guardian of the Galaxy: Legacy Volume 1 by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning – This is the start of the 2008 run that served as the base material for the movie version. There are a few more members to the team in the comics series, but it shares the same challenges of pulling a group of misfits together toward a common goal. I’ll keep reading. 8/10

FBP: Federal Bureau of Physics Volume 4 by Simon Oliver and Alberto Ponticelli – This collection closes out the series. This is one of those stories where you don’t 100% believe what the characters do at the end of the book. I am still a big fan of Oliver did with this series and the premise is so interesting.  This issue – 6.5/10 Overall: I recommend Volume 1 and 2 of FBP and stopping 9/10

Other Stuff

Oprah Winfrey presents BELIEF  – This seven part series originally broadcast last fall look at belief systems from all over the world. Oprah says she was inspired by the Planet Earth series and the photography in Belief is beautiful. The series is about struggle, faith and forgiveness. The stories inspire to differing degrees, but the real strength of the series is its creation of a mosaic of spirituality that show striking similarities, not decisive differences. 8/10 (and there is follow-up stories on the website)

Best Tower Defense Games for iOS

Some people have a Candy Crush addiction. Others are into Angry Birds.

My pixelated drug of choice is tower defense. 

There is something simple and complicated about them at the same time. You play against time, position units in space, and build more capability constrained by the resources available. Those handful of variables create endless possibilities for how games unfold.  You play at the intersection of strategy and tactics.

I have searched many times for good list of the best tower defenses game. Most our link bait or dated or just a list of what someone found after a simple search.

So, from a fan to (potential) another, here are my favorites:

Kingdom Rush Series

Kingdom Rush is my favorite game of all time.


Each game in the series shares the same formula of simple gameplay, creative missions and fun storylines. The enemies enter from one to three entries points and attempt to exit the field. Your job is to stop them. There are four types of towers (mage, archers, barracks, and artillery) that can be upgraded with increasing power and specialty. Finally, you are given reinforcements to place as you like, an area attack that recharges, and a choice of hero that becomes more powerful with experience in battle. The campaign screens can take 10-15 minutes to complete.

The original Kingdom Rush sucked me in and I played it clear through and then for second time, on veteran mode clearing the campaign, heroic and iron challenges on each level. I one hundred percent-ed the game, but they kept adding harder and harder levels.  I stand 15 stars short of a perfect 130.

Kingdom Rush Frontiers followed with better heroes and ability options (100%-ed).  The prequel Kingdom Rush Origins completed with trilogy with more magic (where I am one mission short of completion).

The reason I most like the series is the fun and humor Ironside has used in the game. Each cartooned character comes with a catch phrase, a few more if you’re a hero. There are easter eggs hidden throughout the three games that give nods to sci-fi and fantasy tales from Lords of the Rings to Predator to The Smurfs.

Start with this one.  You can’t go wrong.  10/10 for all three games.

Zombie Gunship   

Gamers call this Zombie Gunship a first person shooter, but I think it plays much more like a tower defense game.


Your point of view is from the seat on a AC-130 aircraft flying in wide circles around one of four compounds. You play each round in endless style gameplay clearing the area of increasing waves of zombies, so that human survivors can make their way to a safe bunker. The aircraft is armed with a gatling gun, an auto cannon and a 105mm Howtizer – each with its pros and cons for different situations. There are a variety of objectives that keep the gameplay interesting and each round of play earns you coins that buy weapon upgrades.

The constantly changing location of the aircraft creates interesting challenges for keeping track of all of the zombies entering the area. The game designers have also created blind spots as you circle around the area, which make timing even more important.

A round of gameplay can last from 3-7 minutes before you are overrun and sent home.  Accidentally illing humans will also get you sent home early.

The game concept is clever and the randomness gives each play its own feel. 9/10


The first thing you notice with geoDefense is its 1980’s arcade style vectorized graphics.


The retro look might trick you into thinking the game is a reboot from your old Atari 2600. Don’t be fooled. The ten second head start will quickly feel shorter and shorter with each round on new creepers enters the screen.

The game has five towers to work with – cannon, missile, lasers, shockers, and a tower collects energy from destroyed enemies and can augment the power of another tower. The paths are always interesting with weird bends or that lead offscreen or cross back over themselves. One helpful hint – You can lock tower in a fixed direction. This is very helpful with laser towers.

geoDefense is a just great tower defense game that will give you hours of great play. 8/10

There is also a sister game geoSwarm that was developed with freeform play where you placement of your towers to determines the path of enemy adding another dimension to your strategy.


Over The Top Tower Defense says it all.


It is grotesque. It is ridiculous.It is cheesy (no really, there is cheese armor). And it has a sense of humor (but in a very different way to Kingdom Rush).

There is almost too much of everything – heroes, weapons, abilities and upgrades. But if you are fan of tower defense, you appreciate it all–someone going to the extreme to see what that might look like.

If you are a fan, you should try it. 7.5/10

Bad Hotel

This is a very different take on tower defense.


As a budding entrepreneur, you have decided to go into the hotel business. The trouble is Tarnation Tadstock controls these parts of Texas and he is going to do anything he can to keep you out of business. All sorts of bad creatures from convicts to bomb laden seagulls will try to stop you have adding rooms to your hotel. The more rooms you can add, the faster you can earn money to upgrade. Each level brings different kinds of rooms with different abilities from guns to healing.

 The game is quirky. The colors are bright. Things explode in big blocky pieces.  And the music for the game changes based on each change to the size and shape of your hotel.  There is something a little maniac about the whole combination. Makes the game seems harder.

I still like it and recommend it to any TD enthuaist. 7.5/10

The Anomaly Series

Anomaly take the idea of tower defense and turns it on its head.  Rather than control the towers, you control the troops attempts to run the gauntlet. People sometimes call it “tower offense”.


The storyline is an alien spacecraft has landed in Baghdad and your job is to go on a series of missions inside the city to see what is going on. You get a few different vehicle types that can be upgraded with monies earned. There are also power-ups for abilities like healing, smoke screens and decoys and they are very important to collect as you destroy towers.

The game is pretty good, but the options are a little limiting. The most interesting part is playing from the other side. It’s worth trying if you enjoy tower defense 7/10

The whole series has four titles – Anomaly, Anomaly Korea, Anomaly 2, and Anomaly Defenders, where you take on the role of the aliens tower defending against a human counteract.

Missing Mentions

If you are fan, you might find my list lacking some popular and well-liked games.

Plants vs Zombies – I was a big fan of the first game and played it all the way through. I never picked up PvZ2, which was another indicator for me that the original just OK for me.

Fieldrunners – I know. This is also a big fan favorite.  Many like the added challenge of being able to place your towers and determine the enemy path to the exit. I have never warmed to the free-for-all style of tower defense.

Bloons Tower Defense – I think it is built for kids and that treatment makes me discount it too much.

 What games am I missing?

What I Read – January 2016

startherenowhawkeye v4msmarvel v3eastofwest v1serial podcast

I am very happy to be returning to some emphasis to reading books again in 2016.

Each month I share what I have been reading and listening to.


  • Work Rules! by Laszlo Bock – I had high hopes for this one. I was really interested to hear what Google’s People Operations did differently. The book has too much fluff surrounding a couple of mildy interesting anecdotes. After 125 pages, I had to move on.  5/10
  • Start Here Now by Susan Piver – I saw the book recommended as a good introduction to meditation. I have had a meditation practice for five years and books didn’t work well for me when I was starting. I like the flavor of Susan’s cautions and encouragement. Start Here Now would have been a nice touchpoint in the beginning and I feel like I have a book I can recommend to others now. 8/10
  • Mindful Work by David Gelles – I really wanted to like this book.  Gelles reports on people who are bringing mindfulness to the world of business. He provides neutral account of individual mindfulness efforts in a range of applications across the ethical spectrum, making the uneven outcomes not surprising. My bias wanted something less neutral. 7/10

Graphic Novels

  • Hawkeye Volume 4: Rio Bravo by Matt Fraction, David Aja, Chris Eliopoulos, and Francesco Francavilla – This completes the amazing Fraction/Aja run.  The story. The design. The art. Loved what they did with it. I will miss it. 10/10
  • Transformers: More Than Meets The Eye Volume 1 – I got a strong recommendation from the ComicsAlliance and it didn’t work for me. On a very practical level, all the characters look the same and it was hard to follow the plot and dialogue. Maybe I don’t know my Autobot canon well enough, but I can’t suggest this run based on the first volume 6/10
  • Ms. Marvel Volume 2 and Volume 3 – I went back to it after my lukewarm response to Volume 1. There is something more here now and they needed the set-up to ground Kamala as a character. I still think the plot is sometimes too much on the nose, but I like the ernestness of Kamala trying to figure out growing up.  I have my oldest soon-to-be teenage son reading it and he likes it. 8/10, 10/10 for tweens/teens
  • Locke & Key Master Edition Volume 1 – I checked this out on a strong recommendation from a friend. Just not my game. A little too dark, a little too graphic. 6/10
  • East of West Volume 1 – I am sure others have tried to describe this series, but it is hard.  There is some alt-history, some western, some sci-fi, and some bible borrowing.  The mash-up made me want to compare it to Gaiman’s Sandman, but this series can stand on it own just fine. 9/10


  • Serial Season 2 – They are telling the story of POW Bowe Bergdahl and like last season, we are finding out stories like this are complicated. I am five episdoes in and really love the work they are doing. 9/10

You can always find more recommendations on my What to Read page.