Monday, July 02, 2012

Book Review (#6 of 2012) Turkey: Turkey: Federal Research Study and Country Profile

Turkey: Federal Research Study and Country Profile with Comprehensive Information, History, and Analysis- Library of Congress.
This 414 page tome is a must-read for anyone living in Turkey, as it will tell you everything possible to know about the country up to the mid-1990s. It was written by several researchers at the Library of Congress and is thus like a greatly expanded encyclopedia entry. Everything about the history, geography, climate, agriculture, economy, military, and politics of Turkey. Since most of it ends in the mid-90s, it misses the rise of the AK Party, the lessening of the military's role in politics, and the struggles with potential EU integration.

I learned a great many facts about Turkey, including its ancient history. The 1980s history was probably the most interesting, part of Turkey's great battle with inward-looking central planning vs. an outward-focused giant of economic potential.  There is a lot of information about Turkey's historical minorities, religions, regional differences, etc.

This book is boring unless you love reading the encyclopedia. But you'll be well-rewarded by knowing more than your friends about Turkey. I give it 4 stars out of 5.

Monday, June 04, 2012

Book Review (#5 of 2012) Reset: Iran, Turkey, and America's Future

Reset: Iran, Turkey, and America's Future by Stephen Kinzer is probably a "recommended read" for Americans interested in Turkey and Iran, but I won't call it a "must-read."  Kinzer is a long-time foreign policy writer for several publications.

The recommended reading would be the first half of the book where he details a parallel history of the struggle for democracy in both Iran and Turkey in the late 1800s and the benevolent role some American's played in Iran's struggle. America's later role of overthrowing a democratically-elected government and re-installing the Shah and all related fallout is also detailed. Turkey's modern history including the rise and significance of the AKP is also an important read.

The second half of the book has a divergence into America's role in supporting Israel and some criticisms about Israel for everything from its treatment of Palestinians to its selling arms to South Americans. This tangent seemed very long and unnecessary, like Kinzer had done some research and didn't have a separate book in which to put it.  

One of Kinzer's theses is that Iran's underlying habit of democracy makes it a partner the U.S. should work with as a friend. My guess is that he mostly approves the Obama administration's deference to Iran as opposed to the W. Bush administration's policy of confrontation, which Kinzer condemns harshly. As Kinzer sees it, the Ahmadinejad regime reached out the U.S. in 2002, Bush/Cheney slapped its hand away, and Iran has taken a more hostile tone since.

Kinzer lauds Turkey's AKP for its neutering of Turkey's military leadership and greater promotion of freedom of religion. Turkey's economic rise makes it increasingly a power the U.S. should work with. He well notes the cost Turkey has borne of being supportive of the U.S.-led Persian Gulf war in 1991, which I would agree is under-appreciated by Americans.

Kinzer's thesis on Israel, however, is admittedly controversial and unrealistic. He purports that the U.S. should "impose peace" on Israel and Palestine, despite the uproar such a military presence would cause. I guess Kinzer added the material on Israel to illustrate how America has put the bulk of its foreign policy efforts in the wrong place in the Middle East and the effect it has had. If you think a President could sell Congress on putting troops indefinitely into the Middle East again to try and settle the millenia-old conflict once and for all, then you'll like this book.  Otherwise...

I found the first half of the book interesting and the second half rather not. I give it 3 stars out of 5.


Monday, May 28, 2012

Book Review (#4 of 2012) Axiom by Bill Hybels

Axiom: Powerful Leadership Proverbs is a poorly named, but otherwise good book. An axiom is "a proposition that commends itself to general acceptance," in math/logic it's a premise accepted as true without controversy and without being deduced from logic-- it's a starting point that you build other deductions from.

Hybels is using the word basically to mean "recorded observations" or "short phrases that sum up a larger idea." It took me a few chapters to get past this, but once I did I really enjoyed Hybel's stories of life in his business-- which happens to be a church.

Hybels is founding and Senior Pastor of Willowcreek Community Church, one of the largest and most influential churches in the U.S. It strikes me that Willowcreek grew so big in part because they were well-led and well-organized to handle growth. If you're organized and excellent at what you do, then people will find you attractive. Hybels is using basic business management techniques (sometimes unknowingly) to build the infrastructure to sustain growth. Growth isn't a problem if you've got the right vision, policies, and procedures in place. Where people know their roles and can be properly assessed as to whether they're performing those roles or not. Where everyone can cite the organization's vision and purpose and everyone knows their role and can train others to do it as well. This is the backbone of Willowcreek's philosophy.

Hybels gives stories of various growth pains and how they overcame them. He gives his philosophies about proper communication, how to run meetings, etc. If you're in any business with the understanding that what you do glorifies God then you can glean from this book. I actually jotted down some notes on my iPod while I was listening.

A few comments that stood out to me:
Before you embark on a new project or producing a new product you have to ask yourself: Is it Kingdom-advancing? Can it be launched well? Will it be sustainable?  If you can't answer "Yes" to all three things, then don't do it. 

"All great leaders read," everything and anything they can get their hands on. Hybels has little patience for people in leadership positions who don't voraciously read books written by other leaders. He does it, and expects his leaders to.

"Excellence is God-honoring and inspires people." Hybels uses Romans 12:8 to support the idea that leaders are to lead with diligence, demanding more quality control of themselves than ISO or any external auditing body could ever demand. If you can't be excellent at something, should you be doing it? This reminds me of Seth Godin's "Dip."

"Admit your mistakes and your stock goes up." Good leaders admit their errors and what they've learned from them. I jive with Hybels here, if you've made a mistake in a business then investors don't necessarily want your head on a platter, they want to know that you've now learned from those mistakes and won't make them again. The best leaders aren't perfect, they're ones that learn from mistakes and are therefore more valuable than ones who haven't yet had opportunity to make those mistakes.

I give this book 4 stars out of 5. If you get past his misunderstanding of what an "axiom" is, then you'll like it.

Book Review (#3 of 2012) Through Painted Deserts by Donald Miller

Through Painted Deserts: Light, God, and Beauty on the Open Road was written after Blue Like Jazz (my review) but the events in the book took place mostly before Blue Like Jazz. Whoever thought it was a good idea to make a movie from Blue Like Jazz must be the same person who thought it be a good idea to have Don read his own audio books. He has a monotone way of reading that puts you to sleep, but it's generally my preference to hear the author tell his own story.

Don and his friend Paul take a beaten up Volkswagen van from Houston to Oregon and encounter the kind of people you'd expect along the way: Strangers who help them fix their car, people who work in roadside cafes, old friends, etc. They hike and camp and talk about love and life. Nothing really insightful. Occasionally, Don will have an epiphany about God and write a few paragraphs about it. This book is basically his journal of that road trip, and I suppose his publishers would think people would find it interesting because his Blue Like Jazz journaling sold so well.

I listened to this book primarily on subway rides in Ankara. The first few chapters annoyed me because it was so self-centric of a couple of middle class, white Southerners to think the world revolves around them and their road trip idea. Eventually, I warmed to the book as their encounters led them places and they resolved interpersonal conflicts and such. At the end of the book when they're sleeping in a tent in the woods and working summer jobs at a nearby pool, Don as a janitor, I'm struck by how easy it is in Oregon to live like that. Don doesn't talk much about his janitorial duties, but I suppose taking on such dirty work gave me a respect for him I wouldn't have otherwise.

But much of this book is like a boring reality TV show where you're sort of a voyeur into these guys pretty tame lives. The fact that people look to this book for spiritual insight really disturbs me, there's really not much there. They don't seem to spend much of their time looking at Scripture much, so much of what passes as spiritual insights (only about 10% of the book) are Don's own opinions on how God runs His universe. That Don would be some sort of hero to some people for writing about the ordinary tells me that American 20 somethings must really be bored or worse. Maybe I should write a book, see how it sells.

I give the book 2 stars out of 5.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Book Review (#2 of 2012) Daniel Boone: The Life of an American Legend and Pioneer by John Mack Faragher

Daniel Boone: The Life of an American Legend and Pioneer by John Mack Faragher. I started this audio book when we were in the U.S. traveling up and down I-75 through Kentucky. It's fun to hear an historic place mentioned in a book and look up and see that the same place is at the next interstate exit.  This book taught me a lot about the history of Kentucky, and frontier life in general. As my own family's migration to Kentucky in the 1800s was somewhat tied to the trailblazing work of people like Boone and Col. Richard Henderson, I found the historical picture painted in this book to be pretty fascinating. A historian by the name of Tapp is quoted in one of the last chapters to boot. 

Boone is perhaps a legend only because he lived long enough to become one. But his life was so full of strange-but-true happenings it reads almost like a comic book. Taken captive by natives, later adopted as a blood brother, later killing those same blood brothers, and losing his fortune along with most other pioneer settlers along the way, just to mention a few chapters. He was a survivor who would lie, change sides, appear to change sides, and do whatever it took to survive the next day. But he certainly wasn't a coward.

One aspect of frontier life that was pretty fascinating was the foolhardy choices that were made out of pride in order not to appear cowardly. This got a lot of Kentuckians unnecessarily killed. Another was the fact that the land-grab was so quick and intense, that overlapping boundaries and disputes over surveys wound up in courts for over a century. A lot of people lost money this way. At the end of his life, Boone and other pioneers lamented that lawyers now carved up everything that had been theirs.

While there is some dispute, the historical facts seem fairly clear that when Boone left Kentucky for modern-day Missouri he never looked back. He hated the politics in Kentucky that had spurned him and probably would have never given permission for his bones to be re-interred in Kentucky, much less in Frankfort.

My only real Boone memory growing up was a family trip to Boonesborough where we watched a dramatized reenactment of a battle between Boone's company and a band of Shawnee led by Chief Blackfish. I was pretty scared of Blackfish when I was 5. What I don't remember learning then was that Blackfish was essentially Boone's adopted brother at one point in his captivity. Natives believed that by adopting a captive, their body would be inhabited by the soul of a deceased relative. Boone had apparently grown close to his Shawnee family in captivity, but how close remains in dispute as he led an escape and later had to kill some of them in battle.

I finished this book on my long subway rides in Ankara, which paints quite the contrast from frontier America. I give this book 4 stars out of 5. If you want to know everything there is to know about Daniel Boone, buy this book.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Excellence

I'm due to write some book reviews for this blog. I just finished one by Bill Hybels book some memorable quotes, including one about excellence that fits well into my worldview of the last month.
"Excellence is God-honoring and people-inspiring."  He uses Romans 12:8 to support his view that leaders should lead with "diligence," and demand more quality control of themselves personally and their organization than what anyone externally would ask for.

Reading this quote came on the heels of my speaking with the chief investment officer of a decent-sized equity fund looking to invest in international growth companies of a social nature. The first condition for investment was "excellence." When you hear the word "excellent" to describe an organization, what comes to mind?  Above-board accounting practices?  Well above-average growth and return on investment?  Characteristics of the "Great" companies of Jim Collins' Good to Great (my review)? 

To me, one non-negotiable of an "excellent" organization is a steadfast commitment to continuous improvement. Hybels also hits on this in the book. You can't improve things if you don't know what needs to be improved. You can't tell that unless you have concrete measures of performance that everyone knows. You must also have a grasp of the data. You need input from all aspects of the organization, meaning a system for people to report issues and ideas to management, and mechanisms for which management can act on the input. Rinse and repeat.

In your personal life, or in your department, business, etc. are you continuously improving? Are you striving for excellence or looking to reach a plateau that will be "just enough."  The difference between the two is "excellence."

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Perfect Competition - Water

In Principles of Micro textbooks, the first form of a competitive market introduced is always the perfectly competitive one-- a theoretical construct where the goods are homogenous, there are no barriers to entry/exit, and there is no long-run economic profit (not the same as accounting profit). The equilibrium quantity produced is socially optimal and the price is exactly equal to marginal cost.  While markets approach this equilibrium in theory, they actually never reach it.

But in Turkey I see more examples of markets resembling perfect competition than anywhere else I've traveled. A person might open up a pastry shop and soon eight more people within a one block radius do the same thing, driving profits closer to zero. The goods they sell are well-known local fare, it's impossible to distinguish one sellers eclairs or tulumba from another's. Eventually a couple sellers will close down and move on to another idea.

A better example of this would be bottled water. H20 is H20, no matter what spring it comes from. Tap water isn't very safe to drink as-is here, so most people buy bottled water which is conveniently delivered in large jugs by several local competing services. But they attempt to differentiate and market (a characteristic of monopolistic competition). Hence, we had people going door-to-door in our building on Sunday trying to talk up the virtues of using a Nestle bottled water as opposed to other brands. The next day, we had two new flyers in our mailbox advertising two other water delivery services-- all of them for the same price. 

Given that gas prices here are about $10/gallon, the price these services charge are pretty low and must be very close to the marginal cost. The consumer definitely reaps the surplus from this competition.  I can think of no better example of a homogenous good than water, it's impossible to differentiate one brand from another.

It's one of my favorite things about Turkey. 

Friday, January 20, 2012

Lower cost of satisfaction

One of the few people who regularly reads my blog chided me this morning for not posting. That's because we're busy moving (you can follow those adventures there). Ridding our house of most of our belongings, many of which were obtained second-hand, has made me think about what I need to be "content." I think that so long as I have high-speed internet, a low-end notebook computer, an iOS device, a refrigerator, and hot water I'll be okay. Most of the satisfaction I get during the day revolves around those items. 

This has me thinking about one of Tyler Cowen's hypotheses in The Great Stagnation, that things like the internet entertain us immensely for so cheap that we're willing to live on less, need to work fewer hours, and we are therefore less productive (meaning slower GDP growth). This is partly why I frown on OWS-type railing against income inequality and calling for greater redistribution. A local Hebrew professor pointed out at church last week that Solomon's words in Ecclesiastes are backed up by economic studies of Richard Easterlin. Income, in and of itself, does little to predict or improve happiness.  Relationships, access to health care, internet, etc. are more important.

One chart I like to share with my Principles of Microeconomics students is one displaying the real cost of various household items over time as Mark Perry often does on his blog. Items like microwaves and refrigerators haven't changed much over the years, they bring the same basic benefits. While median wage growth in real terms may have stagnated since the 1970s, the hours worked to obtain these items has decreased significantly as their prices have fallen:
"In other words, with the income earned working 121 hours, the typical consumer 45 years ago in 1965 would have only been able to purchase a single appliance - the electric oven pictured above, compared to the eight appliances that a typical consumer could purchase today with the income earned working 121 hours."
In terms of appliances and internet speed, those in the top 1% aren't able to buy a whole lot of improvement with their money, and those in the bottom 1% are able to buy much more than they ever could per hours worked. I get an awful lot of free or 99 cent apps that do things that would have been unthinkable or really expensive (like calculators) a few decades ago.Couponing and thrifting gives us access to more items cheaply than ever before, and those don't show up well in official statistics.

Before I'm accused of predicting some type of Wall-E reality where nothing else needs to be produced and nobody works, it's obvious that there is more to be invented and discovered (teleportation, for example) and our quest for more and better innovations will continue to fuel economic growth. However, as Cowen projects, we could be in for a much slower period of growth as we substitute from hours worked into leisure. Those who become unemployed may choose to take longer to find a job, they can get by more easily on their savings and unemployment checks. A slower-growth economy with higher structural unemployment than before shouldn't shock us.


What items do you need to feel "content?" What level of income provides those items?

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Book Review (#1 of 2012) Jim Collins - Good to Great

Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap...and Others Don't by Jim Collins (2001).  This is one of those must-read MBA texts that many people talk about but I just now got around to reading. 

Collins teaches at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. His research team looked at 1,435 Fortune 500 companies from 1970 to 2000 in order to find ones that had 15 years in which the stock price grew by about the same rate as the overall average, followed by 15 consecutive years of growth well above the market average. 11 companies fit the bill: Abbott Laboratories, Circuit City, Fannie Mae, Gillette, Kimberly-Clark, Kroger, Nucor, Philip Morris, Pitney Bowes, Walgreens, and Wells Fargo.

The team then found firms in the same industry to compare these firms to, companies that maybe had a few years of outstanding growth and then fizzled. This allowed the researchers to compare and contrast characteristics of firms, so 28 companies are mentioned in total.

The common characteristics of the "Good to Great" companies are interesting.  Most of the CEOs preferred almost anonymity, and were fairly disciplined about spending and often forwent bonuses and large amounts of compensation. They had the Warren Buffett characteristic of living in the same house for 50 years, driving a used car, etc.  In a few companies, executives were rewarded purely by their titles rather than perks and pay, creating a corporate ethos that seemed to foster productivity.  The humility of the successful CEOs was a huge insight.

The companies also stuck doggedly to core principles, whatever those may be. Collins terms this the "hedgehog" concept. Never straying from your core business and defining your mission was crucial. There is also the "three circles" concept, the 11 companies pursued success in areas where they could be highly successful, in which they were highly motivated, and which fit their profile.  Collins admits that that some of the companies probably created a few products that may not have added much long-run value to our society (Phillip Morris).


The companies utilized technology where it fit the company, but none of the companies relied on a particular set of technology for a homerun.  These companies were studied during the tech boom of the 90's, and many were the antithesis of the fly-by-night companies of that era.

However, something that jumps out about the 11 companies is that just a few years later two of them (Fannie Mae, Wells Fargo) would require extraordinary government help to survive. Collins lauds Fannie Mae's helping pioneer the use of credit default swaps and other financial instruments that helped funnel credit into the housing market, particularly the subprime market, helping to fuel the housing boom. Collins never mentions that Fannie got to borrow at below-market rates because the market knew it had an implicit government guarantee that would keep it from ever defaulting. Wells Fargo was obviously also a large player in the subprime market, though it was interesting to hear how it responded to deregulation and excelled in comparison to other banks.  I remember reading in Capital Ideas how Wells Fargo was a pioneer of some areas of financial innovation, and its focus on hiring the absolute best and brightest is highlighted by Collins. To be fair, these companies thrived in an atmosphere of deregulation with certain government supports, but they thrived much more than firms they were competing with in the same environment.

The housing market crash and ensuing recession wiped out Circuit City. I'd like to read a follow-up on how Circuit City went from great to defunct by 2009.  Best Buy relegated it to #2 and Wikipedia records that CC had 567 stores nationwide when it went bankrupt.

I've found a few bloggers who have increasingly looked back on this book with a critical eye.  You'll also find a number of organizations that give out "Good to Great" awards to employees, managers, etc.

MBA literature is worth reading for the insights it gives into successful companies. But the constant creation of new vernacular (like "Level Five Leader") are a turn-off for me.. too many fads!  There's nothing new under the sun, as Solomon put it.  What I see from the leadership of the Good to Great companies is very Psalm 15, and that's what I primarily gleaned from the book.

I give it 4 stars out of 5.  

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Book Review (#37 of 2011) Joe Gibbs - Racing to Win

Racing to Win: Establish Your Gameplan for Success by Joe Gibbs with Ken Abraham (2002). I well remember Joe Gibbs' Redskins dynasty in the NFL and am well-acquainted with Gibbs' NASCAR team, which he runs with his sons. I didn't know Gibbs' background and upbringing, so I was eager to check out his autobiography.  Rather than just being an autobiography, however, Gibbs gives various "cornerstones" for success throughout the book, making it read more like a management/leadership text. (How many "cornerstones" can you have?  I would think that after the fourth cornerstone you should call them something else, but that's just me.)

The Tim Tebow controversy this season strikes me rather odd given how outspoken guys like Gibbs were about their faith while in the NFL (Reggie White is another).  I guess if you've won multiple Super Bowl titles nobody questions or is offended by what you say?  Gibbs is unashamedly evangelical, even closing the book with a Gospel presentation and invitation.

Gibbs' life had follies.  His poor financial decisions left him bankrupt at the peak of his NFL career in the late 1980s. He blames his diabetes on his poor lifestyle choices. His competitive drive on the racquetball circuit (who knew?) cost him money and time with his family.  But Gibbs preaches from his experiences.

Given that Gibbs has won multiple Super Bowls and NASCAR points championships, it's no surprise that people want whatever his "secret" is, but you won't find much unusual here. One could probably make an argument that Gibbs got his success through good networking and after he'd achieved some success he found others willing to help him out of bankruptcy and into a NASCAR start-up that likely would not have been possible otherwise.

If there's one key trait, I think it would be that Gibbs built his NFL teams around character, doing in-depth research on players to figure out which ones had an internal motivation and not just great physical talent. This seems to be what he looks for in NASCAR drivers as well.  He hired someone to develop some type of empirical evaluation to measure their potential at whatever position they were applying for in his organization.
Surround yourself with guys who are highly motivated and that will separate you in a league where parity is the norm.  

How Gibbs runs his racing team was most interesting to me. His current team features hard-chargers Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch, and Busch's character seems to fall far short of Gibbs' standards (Busch was fined and suspended for intentionally wrecking someone late this season, ending his hopes of a title and angering his sponsors). This book was written just after JGR won its first overall points championship with Bobby Labonte in 2001.  Gibbs talks of weekly (voluntary) chapel services for all of his employees, of how Dale Jarrett was led to Christ as one of his employees, and how at least one of his major sponsors wants to "reach people for Jesus" via NASCAR.  It's hard for me to equate that with the childish, volatile behavior of Gibbs' current group.

But there was almost nothing in the book about his coaching methods, communication style, or even his continual improvement in anything.

In all, I give this book 2 stars out of 5.  If you don't care to learn about Joe Gibbs, then this book isn't for you.

Book Review (#36 of 2011) Stephen R. Covey - 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

Just got back from a great, short trip to Ankara where I've secured housing for my family. But my departure coincided with the end of a road trip and family reunion in Chicago which means I had time to knock out a couple more books before New Years.

7 Habits of Highly Effective People - Stephen R. Covey. I had never read Covey's book, but I assume that almost everyone I know who has held some type of leadership or management position has read it as it's probably the all-time bestselling management/leadership book and easily one of the most influential.

The Seven Habits:
1. Be Proactive - means not blaming others for your circumstances but owning up to them yourself.
2. Begin with the End in Mind - Character matters and underlies everything else. You should have a mission statement that sets out your goal. Each day you "flex your proactive muscles" to make it happen.
3. Put First Things First - Tasks fall into one of four categories and you should focus on the ones that are important but not necessarily urgent.  That will help guide your organization and keep things from becoming important and urgent, ie: a crisis.
4. Think Win-Win - Negotiate hard. It's a little like Adam Smith or David Ricardo's idea that two parties don't enter a transaction unless both benefit. So, maximize your benefit and make sure the other party feels it is winning too.
5. Seek First to Understand, Then be Understood - This helps generate Win-Win, and is a basic sales technique. Don't expect to get what you want without respecting the other party's wants.
6. Synergize - Be an effective leader that fosters teamwork and brings out the best in everyone. It's more than the whole being greater than the sum of its parts, but that's the basic idea.
7. Sharpen the Saw - Take time to rest and do activities that improve your physical health and spiritual well-being.

I don't know how many hundreds of books are out there that have built on Covey's concepts.  There are a lot of basic, timeless truths that he puts simply and I guess that's why this book is so hugely popular.  I'd like to put him in a room with Frederick Taylor and see how it goes.

Reading this book tempts me to size up leaders of organizations by how well they follow the seven habits. I like thinking about the first three the best, particularly in evaluating my time management. Is what I'm doing right now important, and how urgent is it?

I give it 3.5 stars.