Category: Books

Everyone should read Outliers

I loved Gladwell’s first book, The Tipping Point, but I actually like Outliers: The Story of Success even better.  
I received Outliers from my parents as a gift and finished it in two sittings.  I found myself saying “wow” and “no way” aloud many times as I was reading the book, something that a book rarely does for me.
Gladwell makes the compelling argument that people who succeed benefit from a multitude of other factors, other than just their own hard work and smarts.
He explains why star hockey players are most likely to be born in the first few months of the year, why Asians are good at math, the importance of growing up in certain cultures or being born in a certain time period.
The part that I want to focus on here is Gladwell’s section of the book about Education in the USA.  He referenced a study about Baltimore school children starting in 1st grade and running until 5th grade.  The researchers compared standardized test scores of low, middle and upper income children and found what most people would expect: poor kids did worse than middle class or rich kids.
What was amazing to me is that when the researchers compared these same test scores from the beginning of the school year to the end of the school year to quantify how much kids learned during the school year,  they found that poor and middle class kids actually outlearned rich kids during their schooling.  This is astounding to me and has broad implications for advocates for schools who have focused most of their attention on improving facilities, teacher pay, class size and increasing school funding.
What is even more amazing was what the researchers found when they compared tests from the end of the year to tests taken right after summer vacation.  After 1st grade, poor kids and middle class kids lost over 3 points on their score, whereas rich kids gained over 15 points.  Over the course of four summers, upper class kids gained over 52 points on standardized test over summer and low and middle income kids barely gained any.  This research shows that most students learn about the same during school, but there is a huge gap between summer learning for poor and upper class kids.
If most of the achievement gap can be explained by what goes on when kids are not in school, there is an easy solution:  more schooling and shorter summer vacation.  This solution is exactly what the Bronx KIPP Academy does.  They select their students by holding a lottery for any student living in the Bronx who wants to attend.  This means that the kids are mostly from single parent households and are either Black or Hispanic.  The extra work that the kids put in allow 90% of them to earn scholarships to private high schools, 84% to score above grade level on the standardized tests and 80% go to college.
The KIPP program has already expanded to over 50 other cities in the USA, but I would love to see even more cities try to use this approach to help students succeed from the poorest neighborhoods.  It would be well worth the effort and could make the USA a much better place!

I agree with Fabrice: Outliers is Fantastic!

Is 30 Minutes of your Time Worth $5.95?

In “Why You’ll Love Paying for Roads that Used to be Free,” Eric A. Morris delivers a compelling arguement for setting up variable toll rates for public highways that are currently free to reduce congesting.

It’s a really hard sell to politicians and citizens alike, but he argues:

Variable tolling is an excellent public policy. Here’s why: the basic economic theory is that when you give out something valuable — in this case, road space — for less than its true value, shortages result.

Ultimately, there’s no free lunch; instead of paying with money, you pay with the effort and time needed to acquire the good. Think of Soviet shoppers spending their lives in endless queues to purchase artificially low-priced but exceedingly scarce goods. Then think of Americans who can fulfill nearly any consumerist fantasy quickly but at a monetary cost. Free but congested roads have left us shivering on the streets of Moscow.

In a study done in Seattle, the highest anyone ever paid for a toll was $5.95.   The time saved by using the toll was 27 minutes.  Depending on where I had to go, I would make my decision on whether or not to pay the toll.

This article is similar to the book Traffic, by Tom Vanderbilt, which is next on my reading list after Gladwell’s new book, Outliers, which I am almost done with.

The Paypal Wars

I just finished reading The PayPal Wars by Eric M. Jackson who was the former head of marketing at PayPal.  This book is a must read for anyone who is thinking about starting a company or has started a company.

It tells the inside story of PayPal from when it was startup called Confinity all the way to its sale to Ebay.
There were three main themes that I really enjoyed from the book.  
PayPal did not hesitate to hire smart people, even if they did not have a job in mind.  During the author’s first two days on the job, he has to find a place for himself to work in the company.  PayPal’s management team did not mind moving smart people around the company, even if they had no previous experience in the area.
PayPal also had a philosophy of meeting its customers’ needs.  Whenever there was a problem on the business side, the management team looked for solutions that were product driven.  For example, when PayPal was loosing millions of dollars per month on free transactions, instead of forcing users into paying accounts, risking user loyalty, they designed new features to funnel users into paying accounts.
The most important aspect of the book, not to mention PayPal’s success, was its open, entrepreneurial culture.  This meant that anyone in the organization could bring ideas to the table and have them taken seriously.  If they were good ideas, they would be implemented.  It did not matter if the idea came from a recent hire or the CEO.  By empowering everyone in the company to think about all issues, it forced everyone to always be thinking about the big picture and way to improve the company.
Its also amazing how many of the people who worked on PayPal started new, incredibly successful companies.  The PayPal Mafia has founded YouTube, Yelp, LinkedIN, Slide, WorldNetDaily, Digg and others and has funded Facebook.
There are some great stories of obstacles that the PayPal team had to overcome, along with power struggles and disagreements.  This book is a must read.

Favorite Books of 2008

Here’s a list of my favorite books of 2008.  These weren’t necessarily books published in 2008, but were books that I read this year and enjoyed.

Non Fiction