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Good Reading -- December 2020

Philip C. Ordway

Original post:


Wishing everyone good health and a bright, prosperous 2021. — Phil


  • “Time is running out to prepare for the next pandemic. We must act now with decisiveness and purpose. Someday, after the next pandemic has come and gone, a commission much like the 9/11 Commission will be charged with determining how well government, business, and public health leaders prepared the world for the catastrophe when they had clear warning. What will be the verdict?” — Source: “Preparing for the Next Pandemic,” written in 2005 following the 2003 outbreak of SARS.

    • “SARS [2003], MERS [2012], the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic, the 2014–16 Ebola epidemic in West Africa, the 2015–16 spread of Zika —have differed from one another in a number of ways, including their clinical presentation, their degree of severity, and their means of transmission. But all have had one notable thing in common: they all came as surprises, and they shouldn’t have.” Source: Chronicle of a Pandemic Foretold

Facts and Figures

  • Japan is an old-business superpower. The country is home to more than 33,000 with at least 100 years of history — over 40 percent of the world’s total.”

  • In fall of 2019, exactly zero scientists were studying COVID‑19, because no one knew the disease existed. But by the end of March 2020, it had spread to more than 170 countries, sickened more than 750,000 people, and triggered the biggest pivot in the history of modern science. Thousands of researchers dropped whatever intellectual puzzles had previously consumed their curiosity and began working on the pandemic instead. In mere months, science became thoroughly COVID-ized. As of [Dec. 2020], the biomedical library PubMed lists more than 74,000 COVID-related scientific papers—more than twice as many as there are about polio, measles, cholera, dengue, or other diseases that have plagued humanity for centuries. By September, the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine had received 30,000 submissions—16,000 more than in all of 2019.”

  • Chicago had the fastest-rising home prices in the fall of 2020 among America’s 10-largest metro areas, per Zillow via Crain’s.


  • If Then: How the Simulatics Corporation Invented the Future — This isn’t just another “past as prologue” book. The parallels here from the 1960s are beyond eerie and full of lessons, long before Facebook and Cambridge Analytica. “The scientists of Simulmatics believed they had invented ‘the A-bomb of the social sciences.’ They did not predict that it would take decades to detonate, like a long-buried grenade. But, in the early years of the twenty-first century, that bomb did detonate, creating a world in which corporations collect data and model behavior and target messages about the most ordinary of decisions, leaving people all over the world, long before the global pandemic, crushed by feelings of helplessness. This history has a past; If Then is its cautionary tale.”

  • These Truths: A History of the United States — Jill Lepore’s work in “If Then” was so good I started reading her prior book, “These Truths.” It is a massive effort and I’ll probably read chunks of it over several months, but there is a lot to like in this book.


  • The Covid Crisis Taught David Farr the Power and Limits of Leadership — These super-long, unvarnished profiles in the WSJ are always interesting and I wish we got more of them.

  • Can Shopify Compete with Amazon Without Becoming Amazon? — Pretty interesting case study and debate here about two great companies.

  • An Agent’s Mistake Cost an NBA Player $3 Million. He Paid Him Back. — Bill Duffy was Anthony Carter’s agent, and he had one job: Make a routine notification that his client would returning for another year. “Duffy’s mistake could have been as damaging to his future as it was to Carter’s. But in promising to pay back Carter, his loyalty instead became a selling point for his services. “When this happened, I was hearing from a lot of people because I took responsibility,’ Duffy said. ‘I took ownership of it and took care of it and he was taken care of. I’ve had Wall Street people call me and say: ‘Man, that happens all the time. Everybody tries to hide from it. They try to pass the buck. You stood up for it. You took care of it.’ I actually gained a lot of respect from people.’”

  • The Work From Home Boom is Here to Stay. Get Ready for Pay Cuts. — Noah is a good journalist and this is one of the more thoughtful looks at the issue I’ve seen this year. It will be interesting to look back at this topic in a few years…

  • The best of the long read — Courtesy of The Guardian. I didn’t get to most of these, but I thought “The invisible city: how a homeless man built a life underground” and “The Mystery of the Gatwick Drone” were both fascinating.

  • This Japanese Shop is 1,020 Years Old. It Knows a Bit About Surviving Crises. — “Naomi Hasegawa’s family sells toasted mochi out of a small, cedar-timbered shop next to a rambling old shrine in Kyoto. The family started the business to provide refreshments to weary travelers coming from across Japan to pray for pandemic relief — in the year 1000. “If you look at the economics textbooks, enterprises are supposed to be maximizing profits, scaling up their size, market share and growth rate. But these companies’ operating principles are completely different. Their No. 1 priority is carrying on. Each generation is like a runner in a relay race. What’s important is passing the baton. “The Japanese companies that have endured the longest have often been defined by an aversion to risk — shaped in part by past crises — and an accumulation of large cash reserves.”


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