Sunday, July 30, 2006

Linked: How Everything Is Connected to Everything Else and What It Means
(Albert-Laszlo Barabasi, 8 hours)
Very lucid, with lots of interesting anecdotes that underscore the importance of network analysis. I had avoided this book for a long while, since the underlying theory attracts a lot of flakes who fail to grasp the difficulty of the problems posed. But the author is responsible for research that has been published in premier scientific journals, and so he is attentive to the entire range of issues. He's fairly modest about his own accomplishments, especially in emphasizing the contributions of others and the possibility of future revelations. Since this book was published in 2001, a lot of his speculations about the web have come about. He did not believe, for example, that targeted messaging would be possible to all the tiny little leaves on the web, where highly specialized groups gather; but in fact, that is what Google's AdSense now manages to do, so we see the incredible leveraging of specialized marketing that seemed inconceivable 5 years ago.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Copy This!: Lessons from a Hyperactive Dyslexic Who Turned a Bright Idea into One of America's Best Companies
(Paul Orfalea, abridged, 4 CDs)
I enjoyed hearing about how Kinko's was founded. Dyslexia drove Orfalea to see the value in partnering with others who had different skills, and he always had a bead on the market. Even today, school seems poorly designed to challenge and engage bright minds that can't process text. Very few founders I've met seem to be able to grow their potential opportunity by opening to others; perhaps in an era of open source, there's more ways for people to recognize the ways to create through collaboration. This is not a tight book, but it's about as fun as sitting in a bar with a super successful businessman.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Going sane : maps of happiness
(Adam Phillips, 224 pp)
The author is a rock star writer among the psychiatric set, and he does write clearly. This book just doesn't seem at all necessary. Is sanity boring or impoverished as a normative ideal? Not to me. But this guy makes a living off people who are concerned that they might be crazy. He's widely read, so the quotes from Carlyle, Baudelaire, Keynes are apposite and interesting. The frontispiece quote is memorable: "if, by some mischance, people understood each other, they would never be able to reach agreement. CHARLES BAUDELAIRE, Intimate Journals" The last chapter is a nebbish dawning his imitation Nietzsche suit, expounding baseless generalizations about the sane in what must've been fobbed off by the editors as "aphorisms". They are without merit, unconvincing, and rather fatuous. It would be easy to parody them: "The sane do not leave the milk out overly long, recognizing as they do that milk has a complex nature, sometimes to be tasty, but sometimes, to spoil." He simply smuggles his own preferences and attitudes about life into the sane side of the sentence, while phrasing the sentence so that other outlooks are not mentioned.

Friday, July 21, 2006

The Kite Runner
(Khaled Hosseini, 360pp)
I tried listening to this, but it wasn't terrifically gripping. Then, I picked up the novel, and was pulled in by the story. It's an Afghani version of *Rich Man, Poor Man*, a potboiler I enjoyed reading on the Jersey shore long ago. The audio version had one advantage, which was that the narrator could pronounce the Afghan names and phrases with correct inflection-- e.g., Baba was pronounced much more like "Bow-ba". One tiny flaw with the audio was that the CDs failed to record the last 2 tracks when ripped, which meant that the crucial event between two friends, the loyal servant and the author, is skipped over. I moved between the audio and the paper versions, but most enjoyed reading the story before bed. The Afghan dimensions evoke the marriage rituals, the culture of honor, the brutality that can occur between men and women, as well as the war damage since 1974. Some of the psychological nuances of power dynamics are displayed, but never analyzed or discussed by the author.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More
(Chris Anderson, unabridged, 7:56)
A bulked up version of the seminal Wired article by the same name. Anderson credits Jeff Bezos with the original insight, that the cumulated demand for items beyond the big hits held at a store like Walmart (the "fat head") is far greater (the long tail). A slogan of the future might be compressed into this phrase of Anderson's: "Rather than a dozen markets of millions, there will be millions of markets of dozens." The original article had a very big impact, and Anderson travelled around presenting his ideas to many companies and conferences. This talk-a-thon complemented his blog, which was an interesting forum for all the long tailsters (and some of the critics). His observation is compelling: the low cost of inventory makes it possible to offer more of everything, and as things get digitized, time and space are conquered to create an infinite bazaar. Against those who fear choice overload, Anderson incisively argues that people need filters that guide and provide context, and with that power, there's an intrinsic value to more and more options. One final point: In spite of all the information that must have been collected in speaking and blogging about the long tail, the book did not leave me feeling as if I'd gotten an advanced, deeper grasp of the idea than originally was sparked from the article. Update on July 26: The Wall Street Journal just wrote a critique, which underscores how gullible I was in buying into this story, without having seen real data: " 'Everywhere I looked the story was the same. . . . The 98 Percent Rule turned out to be nearly universal.' EXCEPT IT ISN'T. ... Anderson told me in an email that he mentioned the 98 Percent Rule only to show how he first got interested in the book's overall subject, adding, "I have no idea how broadly it applies today (or whether it should better be called 'The 90% Rule.')" ... I was thus a little surprised when Mr. Anderson told me that he didn't actually have any examples of it occurring. At Netflix and Amazon, two of his biggest case studies, misses won't be outselling hits for at least another decade, he said. ... Escan says 10% of their songs account for roughly 90% of their streams; monthly data from Rhapsody showed the top 10% songs getting 86% of streams."

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Bernard Maybeck at Principia College : the art and craft of building
(Robert Craig, 544pp)
Maybeck's life is such an inspiration, and this book captures a huge project he undertook late in his life, to build an entire college campus outside St. Louis, in the late 1920's and early 30's. His MO is demonstrated by what he told one prospective client: "I will design your new house if you will let me come visit your present home, to see how you now live, to listen to the music you like, and to learn what is important to you." (p79) This contrasts so powerfully with the other genius of architecture, FLloyd Wright, who expected the inhabitants of his buildings to live up to his style. Maybeck's temperament shines through this book: When the original site was rejected, after much initial work, his response was positively cheerful, on the order of 'This is great! We didn't think big enough the first round.' Another fine instance of his adaptive style to building: "We must not want our own way; we should think of how best to accomplish what we are hired to do. Every thing an architect works on has this problem. The design, composition, material or color are on side of the balance, and needs and policy and human experience are on the other side. The happiest architect is one who sits on a fence." p430

Friday, July 14, 2006

Ready for Anything : 52 Productivity Principles for Work and Life
(David Allen, abridged, 4 CDs)
I read this in a way that would be antithetical to productivity laser beamers: While reading/writing emails, this sage ball of wisdom nattered in the background. Mostly, it's common sensical, but it's rarely essential info. If you're not living up to the rigors of GTD, maybe you should listen to this as a spurring punishment to make you toe the line.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

(Gary Shteyngart, narrated by Arte Johnson, 11:49)
Hilarious novel about the life of a Russian, landlocked in the former Sovier Union (initially, "St. Leninsburg," and then later, Absurdistan). He is tormented by memories formed from falling in love with the United States during his 4 years at Accidental College in the Midwest, and a year in New York City. Shteyngart's ear for the ridiculous inflections of American speech is sharp, and the hilarity of his satire is sustained for the breadth of this fat novel. The satiric Absurdistan was inspired by the truly sad Azerbijan. Shteyngart's position, as someone raised in the Soviet Union until about 7, and then brought to the US, gives him a great vantage for linking up the two former superpowers. With a main character who's 325 pounds, it's inevitable that this book would get compared to the Confederacy of Dunces. This book has a wider arc than Dunces, with a much closer fix on the linguistic ticks of "multicultural" college grads, the hipster ambitions of the Williamsburgian kids, and also includes a funny take on third world graft and the esteem among the mafiosi for Halliburton.

Monday, July 10, 2006

The Ten Faces of Innovation : IDEO's Strategies for Defeating the Devil's Advocate and Driving Creativity Throughout Your Organization
(Thomas Kelley and Jonathan Littman, 256pp)
This book has a lot of interesting anecdotes, although it didn't strike me that the 10 roles were so clearly delineated that the stories about life at IDEO uniquely stuck onto one or another peg. For example, the experimentalist is the role that throws together a quick movie demo'ing a concept; that would seem to be just as much the role of director, or perhaps, the cross-pollinator. Nevertheless, the real value of the book comes from the numerous anecdotes, and only secondarily from the framework.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

A Prison Diary
(Jeffrey Archer, 7 CDs)
I've never read any of Archer's thrillers, but I vaguely recall hearing that a prominent Thatcher-era conservative Lord had been put in prison. You could read this book from start to finish, without ever learning that Archer had conspired to perjure in a libel suit he brought against a tabloid all to prove he had not been with a prostitute. Instead of facing his own guilt, he snivels occasionally about the disproportion of the injustice. His account of the murderers he shared the prison with is moderately interesting; clearly, of all disciplines, being a writer best transfers to prison-- he scribbles away in his cell, 6 hours a day, in order to pass the time. He definitely benefited from his celebrity and high social class; he also clearly failed to be forced to face the error of his way. The life of a fiction writer blends indistinguishably into the actions of a perjurer; it would be impossible to discern whether this book is any more veridical than James Freys' writing.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
(Mark Twain, 10 CDs)
After finishing the Twain biography, I wanted to re-read Huck Finn. This book is still fun, and the dialects, read aloud by one narrator, show how bold the book was about 125 years ago. One device that moves a considerable amount of the humor is Twain's delight in lies, and the skewering discomfort that occurs when a liar collides with one who knows that they're being lied to.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Cry, the Beloved Country
(Alan Paton, unabridged, 9 CDs)
This lovely and tragic novel, written in 1948, involves two distinct threads: a Zulu minister's trip to Johannesburg to track down lost family members (a daughter who it turns out has 'taken many wives', a son who got mixed up with thieving friends in J'burg). The second half involves the perspective of a white farmer.