Reviews of books about technology, science, and history.

Books

I am a huge fan of technical/computer books. I probably own around 30... some of which are actually readable. I'm also an avid reader of non-fiction. I tend to avoid fiction unless its a classic, such as Crime and Punishment, East of Eden, Naked Lunch, you get the picture.

Below is a list of technical or non-fiction books that I found useful. You may also be interested in my book on Stellent Content Server development.

You Are Not So Smart!

I've never heard of a trailer for a book before... but this one's pretty good. It's for You Are Not So Smart, which should be out in a few months:

He brings up some good points... Your future self is not to be trusted! You must trick him into doing your bidding if you hope to accomplish a lot in a day. I for one have fallen way behind in my blog post frequency... I hope there are some tips for beating writer's block as well ;-)

The animation people did a great job... it reminds me of the origin of the credit crisis movie... it's only 10 minutes long, but highly recommended if you're curious about what the heck happened on Wall Street back in 2008.

Book Review: The Drunkards Walk

This book is -- hands down -- the best book on probability and randomness written for the general public.

I am typically disappointed with pop-science books written for the general public... they usually don't present enough data for me to make up my own mind about their conclusions... and when they do present data, they almost never provide enough details to determine whether or not their results are "statistically significant." In other words, how do they know that their "supporting data" isn't just a great big coincidence???

This book bucks that trend big time, and the results are very impressive.

The author wrote this like a history book about the field of statistics, and how it evolved (slowly) over they years. But, every time the author introduces a new concept in statistics, he also shares real-world situations where people made terrible mistakes because they didn't understand these basic principles. It highlights very well that in general, people are terrible at recognizing randomness, and thus will always be controlled by it!

Randomness is very unsettling to people, as such we have a tendency to give order and purpose to the world... People frequently see patters where they just don't exist. One great example of this was discovered fairly recently, called "regression towards the mean." The author's example was as follows:

A psychologist was visiting a group of Air Force instructors after World War 2 to help them design a new training program. He was telling the instructors that positive feedback was much more effective at getting people to learn than negative feedback. At which point, an instructor jumped up to yell at the psychologist for talking hogwash.

"When my students have a good day and I praise them, the next day they slack off and don't do as well. But, if they do badly and I yell at them well, the next day they do MUCH better. So don't tell me this 'positive feedback' garbage works, because it doesn't!"

Surprisingly, both the psychologist and the instructor were right! Regression Towards the Mean means that on average, people perform at the average of their abilities. It doesn't sound monumental, but people forget it sometimes. If you flip a coin enough times, eventually you'll get 100 heads in a row. Likewise, if you do a task enough times, eventually you're going to have a 100-item winning streak that is entirely random luck... and people will incorrectly assume that it's because of greater competency. Sure, you need to be competent enough to perform the task, and you need to do the task very frequently... but after that, any winning streaks are probably just dumb luck.

It's the same reason why some mutual fund managers do better than others, but only for a few years... it's why Roger Maris beat Babe Ruth's home run record, and then very few records after that... it's why some CEOs do amazingly well at one company, but then crash and burn when put in charge of another. You need only be as talented as the average to have a great winning streak...

My other favorite section was when the author covered false positives on medical tests. Most people -- most doctors even -- aren't good enough with statistics to understand when medical tests lead you astray. Towards the end of the book -- after a highly readable introduction to statistical theory -- he presents the following question:

  • assume breast cancer is present in 0.8% of the population
  • assume a mammogram says a healthy person has cancer 7% of the time (false positive)
  • if a mammogram says you have cancer, what are the odds you actually have cancer?

Most people would assume that the answer is 93%, since there is a 7% false positive rate. When asked to a bunch of doctors, the average answer was actually around 70%. But the correct answer is much different: if you test positive for cancer, there is only a 10% chance you actually have cancer!!!

How is this possible? Do the math... out of 1000 people getting a mammogram, 8 will have breast cancer (0.8% incident), and be told so. However, because of the false positive rate of 7%, another 70 people will be told that they have cancer, when in fact they don't! That's 78 people who test positive for cancer, but only 8 actually have it... therefore, if you test positive for breast cancer, there's only about a 10% chance you actually need to worry. In fact, even if you get 6 positive mammograms in a row, you still have better than a 50/50 chance of being totally healthy! Medical tests for rare diseases are fraught with this kind of problem, and it's a shame doctors aren't better at telling their patients the true odds.

Overall, I would recommend this book to everybody. It is really easy to read, and it is chocked full of examples where very smart people made very bad decisions... simply because they didn't understand how randomness rules our lives.

Book Review: A Whole New Mind

In three words? Awful. Awful. Awful.

The central premise of this book is that people with slightly more right-brain skills will dominate the work force in the 21st century... or at least be much more important than the past 20 years. I bought this book because that is a premise I agree with, so I was curious to see how he demonstrated his point, or any advice he could offer.

What I got was page after page of uninformed conjecture, hyperbole, cliches, and self-important blather. His premise? Left-brained work has dominated the industrial age, and the information age, but the next "phase" of human development is what he decided to label the "conceptual age," where right-directed people will dominate.

Really? You really think that? That's a hell of a statement... I hope you can back it up with some hard data... statistics, job growth numbers, etc? Anything?

Nope.

He claims the drivers towards the "Conceptual Age" are Abundance, Asia, and Automation. That's it. No further proof. Let's take these one at a time:

Firstly, because of "Abundance", people are looking for better designs, even for ordinary household tools... thus designers become important. And apparently this is a new idea??? He believes that the words from the latest CEO of GM -- who said his job is to produce works of art that people drive -- as being somehow monumental. Oh my god! GM designs cars! They now care about "form" as well as "function!"

Really??? You really think that's a new thing? So I guess then those fins on a 1956 Chevy are there for aerodynamic purposes... and the mountains of chrome were there to make it more visible at night. Apparently the author is equally ignorant of the real drivers of the "left-brained" industrial revolution in the 19th century: the production of cheap textiles for clothing. YEP! The industrial revolution existed for the benefit of fashion designers and other "right brained" people who were tired of the ordinary abundance of the tunic. And how much of the computer revolution existed because people wanted a more "personalized" computer experience for their home or business? Ever hear of the iMac???

The author should try to do some research once in a while...

Secondly, because of "Asia," a lot of left-brian jobs -- computer programming, accounting, and legal -- are moving to Asia. Whereas right-brian jobs that require artistic design, communication, empathy, play, and meaning stay right in the USA. Since these jobs are "high-touch" jobs, they can't be outsourced.

Really??? You really think right-brain jobs cant be outsourced? I got a graphic designer in the Philippines who says differently. I got a dozen "empathy hotlines" you can call if you're feeling like killing yourself, and they'll do a hell of a lot better talking you down from the ledge than your friends or family. I also know of some really good customer support centers in India who are highly trained in empathic communication. Ever hear of teleconferencing or telepresence? Right-brained jobs are just as easily outsourced with the right technology.

Jobs are moving to Asia for one basic reason: SUPPLY AND DEMAND. Nothing more. Most American businesses prefer American workers, simply because culture differences, currency exchange rates, and time zones are a pain to deal with... but Asian workers are so much cheaper that they are worth the extra pain. However, these wages are only low in Asia because Asian industries are not big enough to demand local software developers, lawyers, and accountants. Once Asia becomes more industrialized, Asian businesses will be demanding "left-brained" Asian talent... which decreases their supply... which drives Asian wages up... which makes American talent more attractive to American businesses again.

This is just cyclical unemployment on a global scale: no more. Again... some research by the author would have been nice...

Thirdly, because of "Automation," those who just follow a well-defined process will be easily replaced by robots, computers, or Asians (apparently). In other words... technology eliminates low-skill jobs. SHOCKER! But of course, this isn't actually true. As any economics professor will tell you, technology is disruptive, but it doesn't eliminate jobs in the long run. The simple fact is that workers who learn how to use the new technology become more productive, and therefore more valuable to their employers! Yes, job responsibilities shift around a bit, but overall productivity increases, which creates more jobs in the medium term.

Then the author goes on to the second section of the book, which contains anecdotes about what skills will be important in the 21st century: design (agree), story (maybe), "symphony" (give me a break...), empathy (big agreement there), play (agree), and meaning (agree). The stories are good reading, but they are never supported by any hard data. There is evidence of a fad, but no evidence of a trend.

The single saving grace of this book are the right-brain exercises. They are pretty fun ways for a left-brain-leaning person to step out of their comfort zone and flex the right brain a little. If you find this book in the bargain bin for $5, then its worth it just for the exercises.

Otherwise, you'll probably want to avoid it...

Transforming Infoglut: Available now!

I had expected that it would take another 3 weeks to release this, but my second book is now available for purchase! As promised, this is more of a business strategy book, and less of a technical book... however, Andy and I did sneak in some good implementation details along the way. We designed this book so every member of your ECM team should get something useful out of it.

The purpose of the book is to present what we call a "pragmatic strategy for content management." For multiple reasons -- both political and technical -- it is rarely feasible for all of your content management products to be from one vendor. Perhaps you just merged with another company and you each have different vendors; perhaps you need blogs and wikis now and cannot wait for your ECM vendor to create a decent offering; perhaps SharePoint has grown like a fungus in your enterprise, and now you need some way to manage the insanity.

Some say the solution is rationalization: consolidate all content into one system... but that's not the whole story. You don't want to wind up like those poor saps running Lotus Notes, do you? Your users will rebel if you take away their nice collaboration tools, or if you tell them they can't have new ones. Entire departments will collapse if you eliminate content silos without any concern for users' productivity.

Instead, the pragmatic approach is to do the following:

  • Consolidate content when possible into a "strategic ecm infrastructure." This can -- if desired -- be the single repository that satisfies all your content management needs; however this is not a requirement.
  • Federate content services to tactical and legacy applications. This means managing content in other repositories with a combination of enterprise search, universal records management, and enterprise mashups.
  • Secure content wherever it lives. Ironically, in most cases your data is only secure when it is not in use! Once you move it from one system to another, it is at risk. Your information should always be secure, whether it is locked down in a database, or in a USB thumb drive at the bottom of your sock drawer.

The book is 250 pages long... but you don't have to read the whole thing. The chapter breakdown is as follows:

  1. The State of Information Management: a good grounding in what exactly ECM is all about, and why it is important.
  2. A Pragmatic ECM Architecture: the steps you need to take in order to realize the value of an ECM initiative.
  3. Assessing Your Environment: make a big list of what needs to be done, and by whom. Which content should be consolidated, and which is best left where it is?
  4. Strategic ECM Infrastructure and Middleware: this is the "strategic" part of the puzzle. Consolidate to this system whenever cost-effective, and extend it to your portals and enterprise applications with SOAs, ESBs, or ECM standards (WebDAV, CMIS, etc.).
  5. Managing Legacy and Non-Strategic Content Stores: all the tools for "tactical" integrations with systems that are not (yet) cost effective to consolidate. Your content management strategy should never punish you for failing to consolidate: the goal is to make content manageable.
  6. Secure Information Wherever It Lives: tools for making sure content is secure, even when it leaves a secure repository.
  7. Bringing Structured and Unstructured Strategies Together: your ECM initiative should be a part of a broader information management initiative. This chapter presents tools that helps you bridge this gap.
  8. ECM and Enterprise 2.0: here we present a (better) definition of Enterprise 2.0, and how ECM fits into the ecosystem. It presents a strategy for Pragmatic Enterprise 2.0, and explains how many Enterprise 2.0 initiatives could fail without a comprehensive strategy.

Chapters 1, 2, and 8 are relevant no matter which vendor you use for Enterprise Content Management. We do mention Oracle numerous times, but you can just BLEEEEEEP over that if you use tools from different vendors.

Chapters 3 through 7 show how to implement a "pragmatic ECM strategy" using Oracle tools. Some of this data may or may not be relevant to non-Oracle customers. In most cases, you should find it helpful to see what is possible, so you can determine the distance between where you are now, and where you want to be tomorrow.

I worked pretty hard on this, and I'm relatively pleased with the results... but I'm sure the haters out there will find something to complain about ;-)

Enjoy!

Year-End Book Review

I usually like to give verbose book reviews... but I realized that I've fallen more than a little behind lately. Writing my second book sucked up a lot of my free time, but I was still able to squeeze in about one non-fiction book per month... not to mention the hundreds of hours of podcasts on ancient history (my current obsession).

I decided to avoid books on programming and technology this year, and focus mainly on business and communication. I think it was a good idea: partly because I get the best software news from blogs, partly because of the utter lack of software innovation in 2007 and 2008, but mostly because I felt the need to read more about economics and management. If more software geeks did the same, I think the world would run a lot more smoothly...

Anyway... below are the books I read in 2008 that I felt worthy of a review on Amazon and my blog. I hope you find them useful:


Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow -- I read this because I had a long standing white-hot hatred of Hamilton, so much so that it deeply amused my friends. Sam White suggested I read this book to get a different perspective. After a few years, I finally did, and it really did turn me around a bit. I now have a lot more respect for Hamilton, and can see through the obvious propaganda that was set against him... Hamilton is still a political fool, but he's a military and financial genius, and the USA would be much worse off without him. And Aaron Burr was a tool.


Getting To Yes by Fisher, Ury, and Patton -- Highly recommended! This is a great book about negotiation, both in theory and practice. It demonstrates how there are three general kinds of negotiators: soft, hard, and principled. Its the latter category that will always be able to find a solution that satisfies both parties, without either party feeling like they gave in. I've used this concept multiple times recently -- sometimes with more success than others. It will always remain a useful tool to help me find the win-win situation in every conflict.


The Influencer by Patterson, Grenny, Maxfield, McMillan, and Switzler -- the follow-up to the book "Crucial Conversations," this book gives some pretty practical advice on how to set up systems that promote positive change. This is a combination of individuals, social groups, and the environment itself... all 3 areas need systems that encourage both the ability and the motivation for positive change; otherwise it will not last. In each area, there are multiple tools that can help, but a true "Influencer" will know what tools to use and when. Highly recommended for anybody who wants to make lasting change.


Speak Peace in a World of Conflict by Marshall Rosenberg -- This is a good grounding in the principles of Non-Violent Communication. It shows some basic techniques for how to communicate in a language of needs, rather than in a language of good/evil/right/wrong. It has more real-world examples for folks, which makes it more accessible to skeptics, and first-timers. If you like it, I would also recommend Non-Violent Communication, Getting To Yes, and Crucial Conversations.


Three Cups of Tea by Mortenson and Relin -- This was a fun read... its a real-world story about a man who failed to climb mount everest, and wound up lost in a remote area of Pakistan. The people there were so kind to him, he promised to return to build a school. After multiple setbacks -- and some hard lessons about life in this region -- Mortenson now runs the Central Asia Institute, and has built nearly 80 schools in the region. He gives an interesting perspective into the instability of the region, including the Taliban and the real causes of 9/11.


The Turnaround Kid by Steve Miller -- A fairly timely book for anybody curious about the US automotive industry. I've always been fascinated by turnaround CEOs: people who relish taking a failing company, and making it profitable again. Steve Miller was one of my heros there, because he engineered the turnaround of about a dozen companies... most recently Delphi. In case you didn't know, Miller was the real brains behind Lee Iacocca's turnaround of Chrysler in the 1980s. He has quite a few words of advice for US manufacturers, which you might want to heed before you need his help!


The Warren Buffett Way by Robert Hagstrom -- Forget it. You will never be Warren Buffet. Accept it. Don't invest your money in the stock market: invest in your business, or yourself. Even if the stock market is your business, you're probably not going to pick stocks better than a computer. Nevertheless, if you want to know how Warren Buffet made his billions, this is a good primer. The book also constantly reminds you to not get carried away: put your money in a S&P index fund, and get back to work. Stock speculation is only profitable for insiders with nearly illegal insider information, or people who work amazingly hard at it every day (like Buffett).


Founding Brothers by Joseph Ellis -- I liked this book... its a short book, geared for both US history buffs, and the general public. It was a good overview of six important moments in US history: the Hamilton/Burr duel, the Hamilton/Jefferson/Madison dinner about debt assumption and the creation of Washington DC, the early arguments about the slave trade, Washington's retirement after a mere 2 terms, the early Adams and Jefferson presidencies, and the later friendship between Adams and Jefferson. I'm not positive it deserved the Pulitzer Prize, but it was certainly one of the better history books I've read.


E-Myth Mastery by Michael Gerber -- the latest in the E-Myth series. This book helps entrepreneurs create systems that allow their company to run, so that they can free-up their time to build and grow the company. As a computer geek who has observed highly ineffectual business process, I was skeptical that this book could teach me anything. I was pleasantly surprised... its a bit big, and I wouldn't recommend it unless you are actually running a business -- or a part of a business -- but it certainly opened my eyes to the value of a culture of entrepreneurialism. It does suffer from a fairly tedious writing style, and perhaps others in the E-Myth series would be a better fit -- such as the E-Myth Revisited -- but it opened my eyes a bit so I'll give it a solid 3 stars.


The Undercover Economist by Tim Harford -- decent coverage of scarcity theory, and slight coverage of comparative advantage, but not much ground-braking information here. Its not as good as Freakonomics, which I also disliked. I'm still looking for a book on classical economic theory that I can tolerate... any suggestions are highly welcome!


Blink by Malcom Gladwell -- this follow-up to The Tipping Point was a bit of a disappointment. There was a lot of good data in it, but I felt that his entire thesis was flawed. Its all about "thinking without thinking," by trusting your "gut." Yeah, that always works out... there was some good data about folks who could read emotions by observing facial muscles, and how the mind operates when under stress, but otherwise it wasn't very thoughtful. Worth reading if you take it with a grain of salt.

Book Review: First, Break All The Rules

If you are a tech geek, having your boss read this book is probably the next best thing to reading "The Mythical Man Month."

Geeks have said for a long, long time that there is easily a 10-to-1 ratio of productivity between the best developers and an average developer. There is tons of evidence to this fact... however it is still a difficult reality to swallow for some folks. In many cases, you're better off with a team of 3 good developers, than a team of 20 average developers. This book not only validates this claim, but also provides proof that this productivity ratio exists in every job role!

This was based on data from a 25-year survey by Gallup... they interviewed over 100,000 people, trying to find out who were great managers, and what they knew. Almost uniformly, they knew that the standard rules about managing people were completely bogus. They break down what attributes your employees have into 3 buckets:

  • Knowledge: Basic information; "book learning." People with knowledge interview well, and test well, but that doesn't always translate into productivity. Training people "knowledge" is fast and easy.
  • Skills: This is applied knowledge. A great deal of accounting and data entry is applied high-school math, but that doesn't mean any high schooler can do it. They need the skills to know when to apply what knowledge and when. Training people a "skill" takes time, and not all people are cut out for every skill.
  • Talent: The most important of the bunch... somebody not only with skills and knowledge, but their brain is wired to be exceptional at this task! You can have a talent for sales, accounting, data entry, development, bartending, housekeeping, management, anything! Training people a "talent" is extraordinarily difficult, but you can find it during an interview.

This book validates what I have said for a long time: manager is a role, not a rank! Only people with the "talent" for being managers should be managers. It should not be an expected career path for all.

One talented employee is easily more valuable than 10 of her peers, across the board. This book provides sufficient examples that should make any decent manager rethink their methods of using their employees like cogs in a giant "process machine." A good manager should look for "talent," and not "skills" or "knowledge" during an interview... and then figure out a way to help their employees harness their latent talent. If so, then you will see 10 times more productivity out of a talented employee, compared to an average one.

This has nothing to do with knowledge, skills, or process... the talented ones just "get it." They see the problem, they know inherently how to solve it, and it brings them tremendous joy to solve it. Don't promote these stars to management; that's not their talent. Instead, let the exceptional employees -- like exceptional baseball players -- make more than an average manager. They call this "broad band" pay scales, and in practice they work pretty well to make sure everybody is exceptional at their role.

What about developers? They had a few things to say about them... somewhat oversimplified, but they said a common career path is from developer to systems analyst. In other words, go from designing one system, to designing integrated systems that work together.

This is a HUGE mistake.

Why? Because both roles require different talents! Developers are problem solvers, but in general they need ALL the pieces of the puzzle before they want to try to solve it. There is no feeling more frustrating to them than not being able to solve a problem because you weren't given sufficient data... or a complete specification.

To illustrate... Imagine you work at a software company. If you ask a talented developer a technical question, but you don't give sufficient information, you might have just cost your company a full day's worth of developer productivity. Why? Because the developer will seethe, and stew, and gather his buddies for a hallway bitch-session about you... which will cause others to likewise seethe and stew, and grumble about how "nobody ever gives them enough information." It all adds up to a full day lost.

It happens. I've seen it.

In contrast, a systems analysts (or architect) thrives on incomplete information. They know they are designing a system with a lot of people, a lot of requirements, a lot of needs, and thus a ton of moving parts. People don't know what they want, because nobody really knows what is possible. An architect can't wait around forever to create a specification: he needs to experiment a little. This means iteration, agility, extreme programming, and all that garbage.

It is certainly possible for one person to have both skills... but usually the best developers have a mild weakness at integrated systems, and vice versa.

Getting your manager to read this book might be tricky... "you suck! read this so you suck less!" Nevertheless, its a good book that will help you make the case that there is talent in every role... you're not asking for special treatment when you ask to play to your strengths. You're asking that your manager let you do what all great managers do.

Simple as that...

Transforming Infoglut! A Pragmatic Strategy For Oracle Enterprise Content Management

As I mentioned after last year's Open World conference, Andy MacMillan and I have been working on a book on Oracle Enterprise Content Management (ECM). I'm pleased to say that it is mostly finished, and it should be available for purchase on January 9, 2009. You can pre-order our book on Amazon right now, if you wish. Note: Amazon's graphic is using the book cover, which contained our old working title... that should be fixed in a few months.

I should be clear... this is not a technical book about content management: its about what we call a pragmatic strategy for managing your content. It is intended for CIOs, CEOs, and project managers so they can understand what ECM is, how its useful, and why it is desperately needed. This strategy entails solutions for existing ECM systems, legacy systems, portal, web applications, and enterprise search. It covers archives, especially email archives, and enterprise wide security beyond the repository. It also covers the retention and destruction of your documents, no matter where they exist within your enterprise.

In the strategy, there are seven steps... but the big three are:

  • Consolidate: Bring as much content as possible into one strategic repository.
  • Federate: Extend content management services to existing tactical repositories, when consolidation is not cost effective.
  • Secure: Make sure your content is secure, no matter where it exists.

Naturally, when we suggest what tools to use to implement the strategy, we lean towards Oracle's suite. However, we feel this strategy is equally applicable to any ECM initiative. We worked hard to ensure that 50% of the book is vendor-agnostic.

I recently put together a list of what is in each chapter, to help folks that might want to skip around in he book.

We took this approach because we wanted to make sure that this book helps align business and IT strategies, therefore it needs to contain some implementation specifics, and not just broad strategic goals. We wanted to say what you need to do, why you need to do it, and how to get started. Most books on ECM only give you the "what", a rare few tell you "why"... and very very few tell you "how".

Business needs the "what" and the "why," and IT needs the "how." After reading this book, everybody on your team will hopefully be speaking the same language...

Enjoy!

The Best Customer Service is No Customer Service!

An interesting new book by Bill Price -- the former VP of Customer Service at Amazon.com -- as interviewed by Guy Kawasaki:

Customers don't want to call their bank or email their online retailer if something's confusing or if there's an error--instead, everything should work perfectly in the first place. A recent survey cited 75% of CEOs proclaiming that their companies provide above average customer service, yet almost 60% of customers said that they were "somewhat to extremely dissatisfied" with their most recent customer service experience.

Almost a tautology... if everything worked perfectly we wouldn't need customer service... therefore the best option is to never have it... erm... hookay.

Seriously tho, he has a point. If the goal is amazing customer satisfaction, then all departments need to work together to achieve it. From the developer's perspective, we knew very few people read the documentation or run proof-of-concepts, so support calls were inevitable. Unfortunately, we saw this as inevitable, and became cynical...

Customer:  My software doesn't work right after I patched it!
Developer: Did you read the 'readme.txt' for the patch? Its a whole whopping 3 pages long.
Customer:  No...
Developer: Call support.

In retrospect, I now realize that all it would take is a tiny adjustment to massively improve the customer experience: make documentation that is enjoyable to read, or make it brain dead easy to whip out a test box or a proof-of-concept. Naturally, doing either of those had their own internal political implications... so its needs to be a goal that everybody agrees to. Development, documentation, support, consulting, marketing, and sales.

When you think you might be off track, just ask yourself this question: How does this help our customers kick ass? That should set you right again... (Hat tip: Kathy Sierra)

Most companies actually haven't done the math to deliver Best Service because Best Service is always cheaper--or they do the wrong math. It's not just "cost of making bad or confusing product compared to a good product versus associated cost of service." ... Mobile phone companies don't even want you to know what you are really paying and invented new math: "$200 free calls on your $50 a month plan", but it's much more complex even than that when you read the small print. On the other hand, MCI in the old days, and Telstra today, analyze call pattern and then call their customers to recommend a LOWER-rate plan. That's we like: being proactive, a core part of Best Service.

*pffft!* *cough!* Excuse me while I wipe the tea off my monitor...

Holy crap, a cell phone company that helps their customers spend less on their calling plan? At first, this sounds crazy... Like any company that followed it would lose margins and go out of business. But would they? These days cell phone companies are trying desperately to retain customers. A tiny bit of goodwill like this can go a long way towards brand loyalty. Save them $5 per month, and they'll probably stick around for another year.

Similarly, when Amazon is unable to deliver a product when it originally promised, it sends out an "I'm Sorry" email, allowing the customer to cancel their order. They suggest that if the person absolutely needs it right away, they should cancel the order, and buy from someone else. Very few people cancel... but they all became more loyal customers.

Naturally, this book is better for business-to-customer interactions, and probably less for business-to-business... but a compelling read.

American Creation: Improvising on the Eve of Destruction

This is my new favorite book on the creation of America. From the American Revolution, to the Louisiana Purchase. Despite the broad range, Ellis paints a picture with stories I never heard, and insights I never though of.

What I particularly loved was how Ellis painted the founding fathers as genuine people... flawed, yet still remarkable. They were mindful of their place in history, but never felt that their fortune was due to superior wits, superior patriotism, or even destiny. Washington remarked many times that when people tell the tale of the founding of the republic, that everybody would certainly report it incorrectly... because it was so utterly improbable, than nobody would believe the true story!

Many people think there was a grand plan behind the country, which maliciously left many people out. The founders -- Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Hamilton, and Madison -- were men improvising on the eve of destruction. There was no plan... they did the best they could to try to hold the colonies together: maximize liberty, and minimize tyranny. Their gift to the world was a complex, jumbled system: one where politicians will bicker, special interests will curry favor, and states will compete with the federal government over who gets the final say... but nevertheless, its a system that will slowly create something better.

They knew their legacy was tainted... slavery was an abomination, but the country couldn't hold itself together without it. Jefferson refused to be happy about the Louisiana purchase, because he knew colonial settlers would force natives off their land... nevertheless, they did something remarkable. The first country-sized republic. The first modern secular state. The ability to criticize your leaders, without fear of getting your head lopped off. The first revolution, perhaps the only one ever, that came with a group portrait...

Some say its more correct to call it the American Evolution, not revolution. I like that... it gives me hope that even if the system fails from time to time, it will eventually create something even better...

Very enjoyable. Highly recommended, even if you're not a Revolutionary War buff.

Freakonomics

Interesting material, well researched , but very shallow.

The second edition of this book contains the original article from the New Yorker by Dubner about Levitt. Save your time: read the article online instead of this book. It's 5% the size, yet contains 80% of the same material.

There is a bit more info about Sumo wrestlers throwing games... and a good overview of cheating teachers. The book also contains info -- of questionable validity -- about Stetson Kennedy and the KKK.

However, what's missing is a good grounding of regression analysis, or an in-depth analysis of any of the subjects. Cheating, crime, incentives, information asymmetry, any of these would make a great book on their own... but the ADD-style of this book always left me feeling that something big was missing, and thus I couldn't trust that all arguments were presented.

The section on information asymmetry was so shallow, thet they didn't even mention The Market for Lemons by Akerlof. The coverage of cheating real-estate agents was so shallow, they didn't even cover that their book may create a self-defeating prophesy. Many sellers I know use the threat of firing the agent, and thus create the negative incentive of zero payment to a lazy realtor.

I was also shocked that nowhere in the book did he cover statistical significance or margin of error... He runs a few numbers, spits out a percentage, and we're expected to swoon. So what if his data says that realtors sell their own homes for 2% more than their client's homes? What's the frigging margin of error?

Throughout the book the authors joke about there not being an overriding theme to the book. Quite true: it did ramble on about disjointed things and left out a great deal of detail... perhaps that's a bad thing, and not something to laugh about.

This could have been a much better book... but it wasn't.

Ambient Findability

Well, THAT was weird...

This book is an interesting follow-up to Information Architecture for the World Wide Web by the same author. This time, instead of focusing on the nuts and bolts of IA, the author spoke about the nature of findability itself.

Morville shares research and anecdotes from business, history, library science, anthropology, and neurobiology in his quest for the perfect system where everything in the world is instinctively easy to locate. Can we ever achieve ambient findability? And what would the world look like in such a place? What are the social and political ramifications of findability? Will it be big brother, or will the very concept of unquestionable authority wither and die?

Recent manifestations such as Google, Wikipedia, and blogger watchdogs suggest the latter is more likely...

Ironically, the more information we have, the less likely anybody is to use it. Obtaining information is very painful, even if the data is easy to find. The relatively unknown Mooers law states:

An information retrieval system will tend to NOT be used whenever it is more painful and troublesome for a customer to have information than for him not to have it.

Meaning, if I have a problem, I can either look up the answer, or ask somebody for help. If I ask somebody, then they might do all my work for me, which is good for me. However, if I look up the answer online, then I have to read it, understand it, and implement the solution myself. Not only must I confront my own ignorance, but its a lot more work. Stupid Google.

Along the same lines, it's insufficient for information merely to be available and findable... it must also be believable, useful, and tailored to the audience so its easy to absorb. That's the top-to-bottom challenge, and very few people understand it. This book doesn't give much practical advice about absorbability, but it covers findability needs and existing technology quite well. The rest is up to you.

Never Eat Alone

This book bangs the old drum about how successful networking is about giving, not getting. Most people who claim to network are looking for something from you... whereas master networkers focus on trying to immediately give you something you value. The value could be anything: a book, a website, a contact, or a job for their kid. Ferazzi has a long list of what value to give to people, and when, and how to go about it. I found the goal setting section alone worth the price of the book.

For the most part, being friendly and helpful will come back to you tenfold. However, freely sharing your network with every spammer and slimeball who asks is a sure way of losing friends and contacts...

Ferrazi sends mixed messages here... He shared several anecdotes from when he was just getting started in business about difficult people who refused to share their network. Clearly a big mistake, because Ferrazi is now a very useful person to know. Even if this wasn't the case, its vital to use the connections you have instead of hoarding them. If you cannot provide value to your network, your connections wither and die.

However, later Ferrazi complains about people who call him out of the blue asking to network. His claim is that they have no value proposition. Fair enough, a good chunk of them probably are slimeballs who care about nothing but their own needs. If these kinds of people don't know or don't care to know how to add value to me, then maybe I shouldn't waste my time.

Some of the folks without a value proposition may be connection vampires... on the other hand, they might be extremely valuable and just not good at understanding or communicating this fact. So how should we deal with these people? The big question that he doesn't fully answer, is how to be a lightweight gatekeeper? Yes, we should share our knowledge and network, but we also have the responsibility of protecting it.

I'd like to see his take on this in a later article or book...

Oracle DBA Pocket Guide

I bought this book on a whim at a bookstore because it claimed to include "quick reference" info on performance. I found that area seriously lacking...

I thought it odd to have sections on installation and planning in here. Hopefully one does not make such decisions with only a pocket guide as a reference. That section could be shortened to a few pages of warnings and a few URLs. The backup and recovery section was great, but it could be shortened up about 5 pages. Same for the security section.

With the extra space, I would put in at least 15 pages on performance tuning.

The data dictionary quick reference is very useful, and if it weren't for that I would probably have given this book away.

Don't Make Me Think!

At 200 pages, this book is probably the best must-read book on creating usable web sites. Krug introduces all of the main concepts of usability, in what he calls "advanced common sense" language.

There are a lot of difference between web site usability and application usability... mainly because everybody uses web sites, so the audience is highly diverse, and they will leave your site for a better one relatively quickly. Usability has a lot to do with concise writing, intuitive structure, foolproof web forms, and the optimal blend of content and functionality. He covers many important topics including:

  • how to write for the web
  • the difference between usability testing and focus groups
  • the fierce politics of the home page
  • navigation structures that work well
  • usability testing on a shoestring budget
  • how to interpret test results

Even if you don't have the resources for a usability test -- in fact, especially if you don't -- you should get this book and follow his simple rules to make your web site ten times more usable.

The 4-Hour Workweek

This book is mainly geared towards those who are interested in starting a business like Ferriss did: consumer products costing $50-$200 a pop, run by outsourcing the production, shipping, billing, and customer service. He calls this kind of company a Muse.

A Muse requires you to invent a great, sellable idea, and probably a new one every year. If you have a great invention, you might want to copy his business model. He has excellent tips on how to use EBay and Google AdWords to test market demand and pricing.

However, if you look at the math, there is no way that everybody can follow his model. His work week is 4 hours, because he delegates it to 300 people all working 40 hours. Seriously, what's stopping the worker's revolt? Why don't his employees simply outsource him? If his outsourcing companies were smart, they'd get together and keep the 50% profit margins for themselves. This is especially a problem if you outsource to China, or another country with loose intellectual property rights.

Its a good racket for the time being, but I guarantee that it won't work for much longer... which is probably why he's happy to share yesterday's secrets.

On the plus side, he covers several time-management techniques and lifehacks that will be useful for just about anybody... such as hiring a remote personal assistant to do your research, or only checking email at noon and 4pm.

He also has a compelling argument against retirement. Gone are the days when you would hope to stay with your company for 40 years, or even 10! Work from home, and you'll probably be more productive. That lets you work fewer hours, or from a location with a better currency exchange rate. This gives you the luxury to travel, and learn incredible new things.

Once you do this, you can quit your job every few years and take a mini-retirement. The rat race will be there when you get back, or you can just start your own company. As long as you have an amazing life experience under your belt -- travel to Africa, learn Chinese, or study in Europe -- recruiters will probably overlook the employment gap. And such experiences are nowhere near

Mini-retirements are more difficult in the US, where we are without universal health care... but if you're young, in good health, and shop around, its not a problem.

Nonviolent Communication

A friend recommended Nonviolent Communication to me, after seeing how much I enjoyed Crucial Conversations. I was at first skeptical, but wound up being completely won over by Marshal Rosenberg's theories. Crucial Conversations is a cookbook of communication techniques that usually work... Whereas Nonviolent Communication goes much deeper into the fundamentals of human nature -- needs, desires, observations, judgment, empathy -- and helps you understand why these techniques work.

I'd recommend seeing Rosenberg in person, and using this book as a reference. Despite a legion of worshipers, he's incredibly pragmatic and down-to-earth. In contrast, this book feels a bit new-agey. Some of the sample dialog is a bit contrived, and it could use a better quick-reference. However, his whimsical style certainly helps you remember what's important.

The real-life stories and dialogs were amazing! He can communicate effectively with a couple having marriage problems, psychopathic killers, gangs, warlords, or even someone in a near catatonic state. Empathy is the key: once somebody feels that you understand them, and that you are trying to feel what they feel, then they will be more more likely to speak honestly with you to resolve conflict. Empathy trumps psychology every time. However, it also requires you to suspend all judgment that the other person is a monster -- merely another human being trying to fulfill their needs in the only way they know how.

The rules behind nonviolent communication are simple, and believable, but the application is extremely difficult. Our brains are wired for survival, not dialog. If I were speaking to a psychopath, the last thing on my mind would be his needs! However, Marshall gives several examples on how empathy is the most effective weapon when you want to defuse a dangerous situation.

Its instinctive to make snap judgments when we feel threatened. It takes a lot of courage and practice to do what Marshall does... I can only hope to be half as good as him.

The Fifth Discipline

The Fifth Discipline is quite an impressive book. It introduces the art of "organizational learning," which is the ability of a large group to learn and adapt. It is not sufficient for individuals in the group to learn; the entire group must learn, or its competitive advantage and survival are at risk.

This art is broken down into five main groups, or disciplines:

  1. Personal Mastery: Individuals should set personal growth goals, and the organization must help them achieve them... even if that increases the risk of losing that individual
  2. Mental Models: People need to understand what assumptions they are making about the system, and the people within it. Our observations may be 100% correct, but our judgments are frequently wrong.
  3. Shared Vision: Empowering people will lead to disaster unless there is a true vision that binds the group together. Don't mistake a mission statement for shared vision: they're not even close.
  4. Team Learning: You must have rules to encourage useful "dialog" and discourage useless "discussion". Make sure your teams feel safe to submit their opinions, so the optimal solution can be reached via consensus.
  5. Systems Thinking: The Fifth Discipline, and what pulls everything together. You need to step away from the current problem and take a big picture view to see feedback loops, cause-and-effect delays, and other side-effects of system events. These are what turn small mistakes into huge problems... or small changes into huge benefits.

This second edition includes interesting anecdotes... for example, both the Total Quality Management movement and the Society for Organizational Learning made big waves when introduced, but very few people successfully put the theory into practice. Why? The author argues that our educational system is too insistent that there is always a "right" solution to every problem... and this is the solution that makes the teacher/boss happy.

As long as the teacher is always "right", and the boss is always "right," and we'll be completely blind to new ideas. What we need is new perspectives so we can design and implement more effective solutions. Frequently, the most optimal solution is doing the exact opposite of what the boss told you to do. Of course, doing this frequently gets you an F, or a poor performance review, so only the fearless can get away with it.

Sadly, I doubt these ideas make serious inroads into academia or the private sector without a massive retraining program... but I admire Senge for trying!

Bringing Down The House

Bringing Down the House is a great story of math geeks who scammed the casinos out of millions of dollars. The math works out, but I still think only 80% of this stuff actually happened. The rest was an embellishment, probably to add drama, and make the book actually sell. This book should be reclassified as "based on a true story," or just plain "fiction."

There are two things severely wrong with this book. After I noticed them, I was completely unable to enjoy it.

Firstly, there's the gray man who was stalking them... who's actions were described in surprising detail. Come on! The only way the author could supply such detail was if the MIT team KNEW they were being stalked by him, and kept an eye out... however a lot of his appearances were from BEFORE the MIT team knew to look for him.

Second, there's the fight scene in the Virgin Islands. Two tough guys who may or may not have worked at the casino beat up one of the MIT team members in the bathroom. Again, I don't believe it. After that fight, those team leaders decided to split up the team, and stop communication with the other half. Now, since it was the jilted half that Mezrich interviewed for this book, how did he get that information? None of the people he interviewed could possibly have known that. At best it was a rumor, included in the book for effect.

Am I the only one to notice these things?

I'm curious to know what really happened.

The Tipping Point

The Tipping Point was an interesting look at how epidemics begin... whether its a disease, a crime wave, or a new fashion trend, there are many factors in common. When it comes to trends, these rely a lot on the actions of three types of people:

  • Mavens, who obsessively gather new information about products and services, whether it be cars, cheap groceries, or fashion.
  • Salesmen, who are genuinely interested in solving people problems, so they look for the best product/service fit for their client, and
  • Connectors, the networking masters, who connect mavens to salesmen

There are also very subtle things that effect trends... like how graffitti directly affects criminal behavior. This is also called the broken window theory: if you see a house with a broken window, you assume nobody is in charge, and there are no penalties for criminal behavior. This will trigger people with a tendency towards crime to engage in criminal acts.

Some of the subtle effects in the book call into question the nature of human free will... I've never been a huge advocate of free will, so these theories never bugged me. However, if you feel that you are always in control of your brain and your behavior, this book might shock you a little.

Overall, it was an interesting read. I'd also recommend Made To Stick for a more practical guide at making your idea spread like an epidemic.

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