Tag Archives: Mick Ebeling

Books Reviewed 2015

Here is  housekeeping post, collecting all the books reviewed here in 2015.

Looking back at this list, I see that this year saw Terry Pratchette’s last book (a wrenching experience), and new novels by old favorites Stross, Perry, Macguire, Holt, Gaiman, among others. I also read older but still good histories by Goodwin and Graeber. I read several books about banking, Papal and otherwise, and overlapping works about Italy, fictional and (supposedly) real.

Over the year, I reviewed a sampling of important books about contemporary digital life, including cryptocurrency, the “sharing economy”, social media, and “mind change”.   These works covered a spectrum from enthusiasm to dark worry, giving us much to think about. There are many more I did not have time or energy for. (I will say more on this topic in another post)

Throughout 2015 I continued my ongoing investigation of the question, “what is coworking?”, including reviews of two recent (self published) books about coworking by practitioners. (More on coworking in another post.)

Shall I name some “Best Books” out of my list? Why not?

Fiction:

There were so many to pick from. I mean, with Neil Gaiman in the list, how can I choose? But let me mention two that are especially memorable

Radiance by Catherynne M. Valente
Very imaginative and well written, and, for once, not so horribly dark. This book lodged in my memory more than others that are probably equally good.

Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon
Published a few years ago, but I didn’t read it until this year. A wonderful, intricate story. The flight of the parrot is still in my memory.

Nonfiction:

There were many important works about digital life, and I shall try to comment on them in another post. But three books that really hit me are:

Debt: The First 5,000 Years by David Graeber
From several years ago, but I didn’t read it until this year. Highly influential on the ‘occupy’ and other left-ish thinking. This is an astonishingly good book, and long form anthropology, to boot. Wow!

Reimagination Station: Creating a Game-Changing In-Home Coworking Space by Lori Kane
An exlectic little self-published book about “home coworking”, which I didn’t know was a thing. Kane walked the walk, and made me think in new ways about community and coworking.

Fangirl’s Guide to the Galaxy by Sam Maggs
Unexpected amounts of fun reading this short book. It does an old, graying nerd no end of good to see that at least some of the kids are OK. Really, really, OK.

List of books reviewed in 2015

Fiction

A Darkling Sea by James L. Cambias
After Alice by Gregory Maguire
Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson
Bats of the Republic by Zachary Thomas Dodson
Book of Numbers by Joshua Cohen
Chasing the Phoenix by Michael Swanwick
Candy Apple Red by Nancy Bush
Chicks and Balances edited by Esther Friesner and John Helfers
Corsair by James L. Cambias
Count to a Trillion by John C. Wright
Diaspora by Greg Egan
Distress by Greg Egan
Electric Blue by Nancy Bush
Forty Thieves by Thomas Perry
Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits by David Wong
Get In Trouble by Kelly Link
Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman
Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear
Koko the Mighty by Kieran Shea
Luna: New Moon by Ian McDonald
Mort(e) by Robert Repino
Numero Zero by Umberto Eco
Radiance by Catherynne M. Valente
Rebirths of Tao by Wesley Chu
Redeployment by Phil Klay
Satin Island by Tom McCarthy
Secondhand Souls by Christopher Moore
Seveneves by Neal Stephenson
Shark Skin Suite by Tim Dorsey
String of Beads by Thomas Perry
Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon
The Annihilation Score by Charles Stross
The Best Science Fiction & Fantasy of the Year Volume Nine ed. by Jonathan Strahan
The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
The Enchantment Emporium by Tanya Huff
The First Bad Man by Miranda July
The Fortress in Orion by Mike Resnick
The Future Falls by Tanya Huff
The Good, the Bad, and The Smug by Tom Holt
The Mark and the Void by Paul Murray
The Relic Master by Christopher Buckley
The Rook by Daniel O’Malley
The Shepherd’s Crown by Terry Pratchett
The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu
The Unfortunate Decisions of Dahlia Moss by Max Wirestone
The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi
The Wild Ways by Tanya Huff
Time Salvager by Wesley Chu
To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis
Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances by Neil Gaiman
Ultraviolet by Nancy Bush
We Are Pirates by Daniel Handler
Witches Be Crazy by Logan J. Hunder
Zer0es by Chuck Wendig

Non Fiction

Arrival of the Fittest by Andreas Wagner
Blue Mind by Wallace J. Nichols
Debt: The First 5,000 Years by David Graeber
Digital Gold by Nathaniel Popper
Fangirl’s Guide to the Galaxy by Sam Maggs
God’s Bankers by Gerald Posner
LaFayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell
Let’s Be Less Stupid by Patricia Marx
Live Right and Find Happiness by Dave Barry
Merchants in the Temple by Gianluigi Nuzzi
Mind Change by Susan Greenfield
Mindsharing by Lior Zoref
Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari
No More Sink Full of Mugs by Tony Bacigalupo
Not Impossible by Mick Ebeling
Pax Technica by Phillip N. Howard
Peers, Inc by Robin Chase
Reimagination Station: Creating a Game-Changing In-Home Coworking Space by Lori Kane
Speculative Everything by Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby
Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin
The Age of Cryptocurrency by Paul Vigna and Michael J. Casey
The Art of Forgery by Noah Charney
The Next Species by Michael Tennesen
The Reputation Economy by Michael Fertik and David C. Thompson
The Social Labs Revolution by Zaid Hassan
The Ugly Renaissance by Alexander Lee
Twentyfirst Century Robot by Brian David Johnson
Women of Will:  Following the Feminine in Shakespeare’s Plays by Tina Packer

 

Book Reviews

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Housekeeping: Books Reviewed in First Quarter 2015

These are the books reviewed here in the past quarter.

Non Fiction

Arrival of the Fittest by Andreas Wagner
Blue Mind by Wallace J. Nichols
Live Right and Find Happiness by Dave Barry
Not Impossible by Mick Ebeling
The Age of Cryptocurrency by Paul Vigna and Michael J. Casey
The Reputation Economy by Michael Fertik and David C. Thompson
The Social Labs Revolution by Zaid Hassan
The Ugly Renaissance by Alexander Lee

Fiction

Candy Apple Red by Nancy Bush
Electric Blue by Nancy Bush
Get In Trouble by Kelly Link
Mort(e) by Robert Repino
Redeployment by Phil Klay
Shark Skin Suite by Tim Dorsey
String of Beads by Thomas Perry
The Enchantment Emporium by Tanya Huff
The First Bad Man by Miranda July
The Fortress in Orion by Mike Resnick
The Future Falls by Tanya Huff
The Wild Ways by Tanya Huff
Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances by Neil Gaiman
Ultraviolet by Nancy Bush
We Are Pirates by Daniel Handler

 

Book Reviews: How to Fix the World

Not Impossible by Mick Ebeling
The Social Labs Revolution by Zaid Hassan

Here are a couple of books about forceful, radical work to fix the world by super earnest people who are walking the walk. It is interesting to read them together, to see the play of light and interference patterns where they agree and contrast with each other.

The world is full of big problems, some perennial, and some new. In many cases, existing institutions and practices are not only failing, they are implicated in the disaster. Furthermore, most problems are big and interconnected, and generally not a matter of “mere money”, or any such silver bullet.

Still, we must do what we can. But what can we do? And how?

Each of these books offers insights, along with suggestions of different paths that one might take. Both men feel an intense pressure to act, and act now. “If not now, when? If not me, who?” as Ebeling says. But there are differences in what they want to do and how, which makes it fascinating to read them side-by-side.

Ebeling highlights the fact that, however big and complex the problem, at base there are individual humans. When someone needs help, and we can help, then we must. Help one, and give away the solution to help others, is his approach.

Hassan wants to help people by fixing systems, which usually means people working together to fix their own lives. Chip away at the underlying problem, help lots of people, and create conditions to make bigger fixes.

Ebeling is, by vocation, a “storyteller”, so he uses this skill to attract attention to specific problems, to gather support, and to recruit remarkable people to work hard and immediately. “[T]hats how change happens: through a clear and simple, relatable story.” (p. 164) Definitely the “Hollywood” method.

By contrast, Hassan is a systematic thinker and theoretician, and he seeks to build platforms for multiple, sustained efforts to change things at a global scale. A chapter title, “Steps Toward a Theory of Systemic Action” gives the flavor of what he is trying to do.

One thing they seem to differ on is whether the prime goal should be to “fix one thing fast” (Ebeling), or “fix the right things for a long time” (Hassan). Both of these are good ways. Clearly, helping one person without fixing the broken system is limited. But fixing something in the long run doesn’t necessarily help anyone in the short run.

Tellingly, both men like to think in terms of experiments and prototypes, and neither has much patience for complex planning processes. Ebeling likes the hacker vibe of “just do it”, while Hassan is more scientific, expending great effort to learn and feedback results into new experiments. Ebeling uses “agile methods” because he is impatient to get the job done, Hassan uses “agile methods”, too, because planning doesn’t work—but he also takes trouble to justify this move by reference to Aristotle and Heidegger among other other philosophers.

I have to say that Ebeling’s “commit, then figure it out” is not the best idea for everyone or every problem. He gets away with it because he is well connected to wealthy people, so he can make it rain. But some problems will kill you, or innocent bystanders, so it isn’t always good to “just do it”.

Hassan’s social labs as platforms is an interesting idea, especially if you want to intervene on the scale of lifetimes. He has a strong emphasis on innovation by the stakeholders themselves, not by some do-gooders on the Internet. But, as he so clearly tells, this is difficult, tedious, and risky.

Everything depends on getting the right people in the right place, pulling the right levers, and being willing to adapt to conditions. Ebeling’s enterprise is all about motivating people to step up and tackle problems, Hassan’s is about helping people work together over time, to tackle their own problems.

I like both approaches, though I’d say this isn’t an either-or proposition. Of course, we must act out of personal passion. And we must strive to make changes that matter in the long run.

I lean towards the “work together” approach, which is really our only choice. But I am proud to be a card carrying Maker and volunteer, too.


 Not Impossible by Mick Ebeling

Mick Ebeling is a “story teller”, who fell backwards into the Maker movement. Self described “adrenaline addict”, Ebeling is not cut out for actual engineering (which is usually about risk mitigation), but he is totally simpatico with the Maker ethos: “Commit: Then Figure It Out”.

His Not Impossible Labs creates simple, open source gadgets to help people for whom help has been “impossible”. “What makes them amazing are the stories that surround the devices. It is the story that makes an invention compelling.” (p. 75)

Ebeling’s story is about several cool hacks, starting with ‘EyeWriter’, enabling a paralyzed artist to paint again. Very cool stuff, though perhaps not as technically ground breaking as he thinks. The crux of the story is not that any of this was ever “impossible” technically, it is that no one organized to put together solutions that have small user populations and will not make a profit.

Much of the rest of the book is a story about his trip to Africa to help one specific boy he heard about, to 3D print prosthetics for him—in a war zone, way off the grid. This is a remarkable adventure (for Ebeling), though it is not so much “impossible” as it is “ill advised”, not to say “insane”.

One ofhe best part of the book is Ebeling’s formula for success, “The Three Rules of How”.

  1. Singularity of focus – passionate focus on a personal goal, tackle a “small” problem that matters to you
  2. Give it away – liberation from cost benefit calculations, wiadom of the crowd, and just plain joyful
  3. Beautiful, limitless naivete – ‘nuff said

But why would you do this? Boiling down the story, it’s pretty simple. You do it because it’s part of who you are, and who you want to be. You see something wrong, you want to fix it, you need to fix it. “If not now, when? If not me, who?”

Nothing could be simpler.

Now, there is a lot in this book that I just don’t agree with. “Fake it til you make it” isn’t really honest, and can really hurt other people. His expensive, difficult, and dangerous trip to Africa made him feel good but helped only one kid for a short time. He did nothing to stop the war or suffering of the millions.

I guess I’m saying I don’t really like the “Hollywood” style.

Still, you won’t regret reading about his work and his story.


 

The Social Labs Revolution by Zaid Hassan

But solving problems one person at a time, one problem set at a time isn’t really enough, is it? To tackle complex problems, making a simple solution and them open sourcing it is not really a solution.

Hassan applies the same “let’s do it” spirit, though in the form “let’s do it together”. This is a really important difference. He calls this, “Social Labs”.

From his experience he gives a really nice bit of practical wisdom, in the form of three rules:

  1. Make what works stronger
  2. Let go of what doesn’t work
  3. Discover what you don’t have (p.95)

Hassan is generally no fan of “planning”, for many reasons, starting with the belief that it doesn’t work. He’s all about goal-oriented experimentation, in which you can’t really say for sure what the schedule is, or what the “inputs” and “outputs” will be.

The paradigmatic “social lab” is the Sustainable Food Lab, which has worked for years on various aspects of food supplies. Hassan says that this is a “platform” that lives a long time, and starts many innovations. Some end, some fail, and some continue and succeed.

But Hassan also describes a messy, unsuccessful episode, the Bahvisha Lab. This initiative met many kinds of friction, and did not achieve a great deal—though it did generate lessons, as he discusses in detail.

Chapter 6 is something I didn’t expect in this book, or anywhere, for that matter. He meanders from Aristotle through Heidegger and systems theory, thinking hard about the nature of “practical wisdom” and change. Eventually, he establishes the result he seeks, which is that the future is unknowable, all innovation is a black swan, and therefore planning is useless. Ergo: scrum!

Really! This is the first time I’ve seen Agile Software Development justified by Heidegger. But , why not? The essence of “scrum” is the notion that action is what counts, and the future is unknowable beyond a day or two. So why not dress it up with arguments about phenomenology?! Cool!

Chapter 7 does some serious theorizing, defining three requirements for “systemic action”:

  1. Constitute a diverse team (see also [3]), he advocates “open convening”
  2. Design an iterative process
  3. Actively create systemic spaces

This section has a couple of memorable images. The best one is a thought experiment,

“The task is to get a group of people who are standing in a valley to climb a mountain. You’re free to use whatever means necessary in order to achieve this task, and the assumption is that people will stay on top of the mountain after they’ve been moved. What would you do?” (p. 117)

He proceeds to go through the absurdities of many conventional approaches, and concludes that “[t]he most sustainable solution is, of course, that people decide for themselves to get to the top of the mountain, collaborate with each other, and get there using their own locomotion—to walk up.” (p. 119)

(By the way, I’d love to do a collection of original stories (or songs) by various authors, each telling how to get to the mountain top.)

Chapter 8 has “Seven How-Tos”, which are quite useful for a lot of purposes. I found myself thinking about these how-tos while doing routine emails, many of which are aimed at various kinds of “collaboration”.

  1. Clarify intentions (Duh!)
  2. Broadcast an invitation
  3. Work your networks
  4. Recruit willing people
  5. Set direction
  6. Design in stacks
  7. Find cadence

The conclusion finally rejects “planning” altogether, and argues for simple strategic goals. He gives three broad strategies: stabilization, mitigation, and adaptation.

It’s probably obvious by now that I lean toward Hassan’s approach, which certainly makes this old Bolshi’s heart go pit-a-pat. Let’s go big, go long, and go together. It’s really the only choice we have.


 

  1. Ebeling, Mick, Not Impossible: The Art and Joy of Doing What Couldn’t Be Done, New York, Atria Books, 2015.
  2. Hassan, Zaid, The Social Labs Revolution: A New Approach To Solving Our Most Complex Challenges, San Francisco, Berret-Kohler Publichsers, 2014.
  3. Page, Scott E., The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2007.

Sunday Book Reviews