Category Archives: Books

Books: Better Off

A couple of quotes from the book “Better Off: Flipping The Switch On Technology” that I thought were important enough to note here:

… tricks like these remove much of the onus from manual labor and add to the sense of physical effort a much finer satisfaction: the magisterial feeling that comes with wielding means precisely fitted to ends. Here, perhaps, is the first of all lessions in the use of power, whether technological or physiological: trimming back the means until only the essential remain; weeding out obstructions, man-made or not, to our goals.

(page 27)

Modern technology, I suspect, far from being neutral in its effects, has more than one purpose or built-in tendency: besides reducing the need for physical effort (a kind of material surrender), it helps us avoid the need for cooperation or social flexibility (a kind of social or metaphysical surrender). All too readily it countermands the uncertainty that goes with Gelassenheit. Cars, telephones, message machines, caller ID, and e-mail grant us unprecendented powers to associate with whom we want, when we want, to the degree we want, under the terms we want, finessing and filtering out those we don’t want — and thin out the possibilities of social growth accordingly.

(page 80)

… in true leisure there is mastery. If the enemy of self-direction was passion and impulse, its ally was quiet repose, mindfulness, perceptivity. Yet the act of reflection transcended the rational; it followed a course that could not be entirely foreseen, yielding conclusions that could not be reached if too deliberately pursued.

(page 133)

For those who would outstep and outsmart machines, a broad suggestion: remember the principle of minimation. Technology undoubtedly has, and will always have, some role in making life easier or better, so one shouldn’t exclude it. But the role is supplemental. Technology serves us, not we technology. The principle of minimation can be roughly stated thus: other things equal, it is better to find a non-technological solution than a technological one, or failing that, a less technological solution than a more technological one.

(page 229)

Books, the last 12 months

It’s been almost exactly a year since I last pointed to my reading list, turns out I’ve read about 30 books in the last 12 months, highlighted by seven in the month of July (mom-in-law got me a gift certificate to Barnes & Noble for my birthday so I splurged and then read them all in quick succession). Here’s the list in reverse chronological order with no spacing:

The World Is Flat A Rumor of War The Ghost Map The End of Poverty The Design of Everyday Things Purple Cow: Transform Your Business by Being Remarkable
Small Things Considered: Why There Is No Perfect Design The Soul Of A New Machine The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty: The Game, the Team, and the Cost of Greatness Seven Seconds or Less: My Season on the Bench with the Runnin’ and Gunnin’ Phoenix Suns The Teammates: A Portrait of a Friendship Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers Mountains Beyond Mountains: Healing the World: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed Acts of Faith Traveling Mercies Founders at Work: Stories of Startups’ Early Days Micro-ISV: From Vision To Reality To End All Wars SR-71 Revealed: The Inside Story The Architecture of Happiness Don’t Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind Skunk Works: A Personal Memoir of My Years of Lockheed Next Crossing the Chasm The Man Who Shocked the World: The Life and Legacy of Stanley Milgram Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero This Beautiful Mess Love Me, Hate Me: Barry Bonds and the Making of an Antihero

I haven’t come across many new books lately (I keep my to-read list at Amazon and my have-read list here) so ping me (ajohnson@cephas.net) if you’ve read something cool lately.

Book Review: Crossing the Chasm

Book Review: Crossing the Chasm

I don’t remember how Crossing the Chasm got onto my reading list (maybe the Fog Creek Software Management Training Program Reading List?) but I finally got around to reading it over the last couple weeks. One sentence review: It’s a great book for developers and product managers working at small software shops / start ups that want to to take their business to the next level. And now for a bunch of poignant excerpts…

The book hinges on the idea that a giant chasm exists in between the early adapters and the early majority (hence the title), as evidenced by this bell curve:



For posterity’s sake, the author defines the early adopter as someone who wants to buy a change agent, something that will

“… get [them] a jump on the competition, whether from lower product costs, faster time to market, more complete customer service, or some other comparable business advantage.”

In comparison, the early majority

“… want to buy a productivity improvement for existing operations. They are looking to minimize the discontinuity with the old ways. They want evolution, not revolution. They want technology to enhance, not overthrow, the established ways of doing business.”

(pg 20)

What is marketing?

… taking actions to create, grow, maintain, or defend markets… Marketing’s purpose, therefore, is to develop and shape something that is real, and not, as people sometimes want to believe, to create illusions. In other words, we are dealing with a discipline more akin to gardening or sculpting than, say, to spray painting or hypnotism… a market is
  • a set of actual or potential customers
  • for a given set of products or services
  • who have a common set of needs or wants, and
  • who reference each other when making a buying decision

(pg 28)

You need to read the book to understand why the following excerpt is important, but I think this paragraph sums up a lot of what the book is about:

Companies just starting out, as well as any marketing program operating with scarce resources must operate in a tightly bound market to be competitive. Otherwise, their “hot” marketing messages get diffused too early, the chain reaction of word-of-mouth communication dies out, and the sales force is back to selling “cold.” This is classic chasm symptom, as the enterprise leaves behind the niche represented by the early market. It is usually interpreted as a letdown in the sales force or a cooling off in the demand when, in fact, it is simply the consequence of trying to expand into too loosely bound a market. The D-Day strategy prevents this mistake. It has the ability to galvanize an entire enterprise by focusing it on a highly specific goal that is 1) readily achievable and 2) capable of being directly leveraged into a long term success. Most companies fail to cross the chasm because, confronted with the immensity of the opportunity represented by a mainstream market, they lose their focus, chasing every opportunity that presents itself, but finding themselves unable to deliver a salable proposition to any true pragmatist buyer. The D-Day strategy keeps everyone on point — if we’d don’t take Normandy, we don’t have to worry about how we’re going to take Paris. And by focusing our entire might on such a small territory, we greatly increase our odds of immediate success.

(pg 67)

On product-centric / pre-chasm companies compared to market-centric / post-chasm companies:

… we must shift our marketing focus from celebrating product-centric value attributes to market-centric ones. Here is a representative list of each:
Product Centric

  • Fastest product
  • Easiest to use
  • Elegant Architecture
  • Product Price
  • Unique Functionality

Market-Centric

  • Largest installed base
  • Most third party supporters
  • De facto standard
  • Cost of ownership
  • Quality of support

(pg 137)
I’m leaving out a number of other excerpts that I dog eared because it’s late but the excerpts probably won’t do you any good any way, read it and then these might jog your memory.

Book Review: The High Price of Materialism

A couple of weeks ago I saw a book in the semi-weekly newsletter that I get from MIT Press called “The High Price of Materialism” (buy on MIT Press, Amazon) (oops, now that I look I actually added it to my Amazon.com wishlist back in June) Anyway, I finished it tonight and wanted to note a couple tidbits.

It’s a great book on alot of different levels; it makes you think about your own life, your motivations, where you spend your time and might even influence how you make big decisions about oh, say, an election for instance. Since I’m horrible at writing summaries and because someone else already took the time to do it on the back of the book, I’ll just quote that: “Other writers have shown that once we have sufficient food, shelter and clothing, further materialistic gains do little to improve our well-being. But Kasser goes beyond these findings to investigate how people’s materialistic desires relate to their well-being. He shows that people whose values center on the accumulation of wealth or material posessions face a greater risk of unhappiness, including anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, and problems with intimacy — regardless of age, income, or culture.”

Other interesting snippets:

In regards to an experiment which “.. women who viewed the advertisements with models reported less satisfaction with their own attractiveness, but did not differ from the control group in self-ratings of how attractive they thought themselves to be. This suggests that the ads did not change the women’s assessment of their actual attractiveness, but raised their ideals about attractiveness in general… The results suggest that decreased life satisfcation could be a side effect of frequent exposure to all the different types of idealized images in the media, whether for cards, furniture, or baby powder.” (page 56) We’re in a society full of ads, one wonders what ‘frequent exposure’ is. But more importantly, remember that viewing advertisements pecks away at your soul.

The summary of chapter 5 (called ‘Fragile Self-Worth): “When people and nations make progress in their materialistic ambitions, they may experience some temporary improvement of mood, but it is likely to be short lived and superficial. Furthermore, some of the psychological dynamics related to the strong pursuit of materialistic goals (problems with self-esteem and discrepancies) keep individuals’ well-being from improving as their wealth and status increase. The sad truth is that when people feel the emptiness of either material success or failure, they often persist in thinking that more will be better, and thus continue to strive for what will never make them happier. (page 59)

“Political scientist Robert E. Lane similarly commented that people in capitalistic countries suffer ‘a kind of famine of warm interpersonal relationships, of easy-to-reach neighbors, of encircling, inclusive memberships, and of solid family life.’ What these and other thinkers note is that materialistic values ‘crowd out’ other meaningful pursuits, as the time we spend earning and consuming often means neglect of our spouses, children, friends and community.” (page 61) Purely anecdotal evidence, but since we moved into our new house, we’ve met the couple across the street and the lady next door. No one else stopped in to say ‘hi, welcome to the neighborhood!’. I’m sure suburbia has something to do that it and maybe some of the burden lies on us to the same thing.

“… when consumption, possessions, and money become our primary aims, we become less concerned with fully understanding others’ subjective experience, feelings, and desires. Instead, others become objects and thus lose their value as people. In the materialist mindset, people exist largely to reflect well on ourselves and to be used and manipulated to obtain what we want.” (page 68)

This next piece was extremely interesting and probably much more relevant to readers of this blog, the heading is “Materialism, Intrinsic Motivation, and Flow“. “If individuals place a low value on freedom and self-expression, they will be unlikely to construct their lives in a manner that enhances their chances of having autonomous and authentic experiences… values bleed over into people’s experiences, enhancing or detracting from them.

One experience from which materialistic values detract is the sort that some thinkers consider the pinnacle of autonomy and self-expression…. it occurs when an individual is doing something for no other purpose than the sheer joy, interest, and challenge involved. A great example intrinsic motivation is children’s play, but it can also be seen in any number of adult activities, such as climbing mountains, painting pictures, hiking in the woods, and even writing books. People can also feel flow or intrinsic motivation in nonleisure activities, such as their work or conversations they have with others. what is required is that people pursue activities for what the activities themselves have to offer, not for rewards or praise.” Since you’re reading this blog, I’m guessing you’ve felt the flow; it usually hits me late at night (not recently) when I’m working on a pet project that has no chance of making a dime. I think the entire open source movement can readily relate to the above paragraph and it points to why programmers on Slashdot are so passionate about freedom of speech and self-expression. In some sense, the open source movement isn’t about money and never will be. It’s about meeting a basic psychological need for self expression and autonomy… it’s about being authentic. But wait, it gets better. Tim goes on to say rewards (monetary, praise, etc..) actually decrease our intrinsic motivation. In other words, once you start to get paid to work on an open source project, it’s very possible that it won’t be as fun as it once was. (page 76-77)

So if ‘flow’ is good, how do we maximize the amount of time we spend in the flow? “Studies … have found that watching television involves very little challenge; instead it causes people to feel zoned out or apathetic… Shopping is another example of a low-flow activity encouraged by materialistic values… Working long hours and amassing debt are other activities encouraged by materialistic values that must surely involve little in the way of intrinsic satisfaction.” (page 81-82)

The cure? “Many thinkers in other fields have propounded the benefits of values such as growing as a person, knowing and accepting oneself, caring about family and friends, and helping the community and world be a better place. The importance of these values can also be recognized in a contemporary social movement called Voluntary Simplicity, a growing trend for people to abandon the high-paying, high-stress lifestyle necessary to support high levels of consumption, and focus instead on personal growth, nurturing relationships, and helping others.” (page 99)

Stop and smell the flowers today.

Can a Developing Nation Be Creative?

Nicholas Negroponte asks the above question in one of the articles from the latest issue of ITID [abstract] [full source]. From what I gather, he posits that for developing nations to be successful, they require “.. discipline, team playing, and efficiencies that come from standardized,controlled, preplanned, and highly regulated environments” but that same discipline and highly regulated environment discourages creativity.

“By contrast, a creative society values and expects different social qualities, almost all of them in the service of imagination. Originality, resourcefulness, and inventiveness are central to the personality of creative people. They can be very contrarian. Expression and individualism are also high on the list. A creative culture welcomes and even encourages a healthy questioning of authority, especially when it is authority for authority’s sake. Complexity and contradiction provide the rich soil for growing new ideas. Quality of life comes from design and invention, and the arts play a central role.”

I found this interesting because I think that this formula is exactly the opposite of what you see in the lifecycle of a corporation, a much smaller organism than a country, but a culture nonetheless. A startup is full of creative people with new ideas, inventions, etc. If the startup lives long enough, new management is likely brought in, rules are created, the free soda goes away and you have to report to your desk at 8am or else you get written up (like you’re in 3rd grade all over again). Nicholas postulates that this is the exact situation facing students in their first years of school:

“By contrast, all the behavioral characteristics needed to jump-start and accelerate economic development seem to be the opposite, and those lead to a very uncreative environment. This is often most manifest in primary education, where the typical emphasis on drill and practice makes kids fearful to ask questions, frightened to make mistakes, and afraid to be different.”

The situation described in the quote above is eerily similar to the environment I work in: people are punished for making mistakes, afraid to be different and don’t question authority.

This then begs the question: can an established organization be creative? Jason Kottke recently posted a link to a speech that Paul Depodesta (at the time assistant general manager to the A’s, now the general manager of the Dodgers) gave at a CSFB conference (in a weird turn of events, CSFB removed the speech from the web, Jason has archived it here). In the speech he talks about his experience working in the Cleveland Indians:

“Going back to my time with the Indians, we were enormously successful during this time. The stadium was sold out every night, we were going to the playoffs every year, we were making more money than any other team in the game, but I could see that our process was really starting to slip. Before I had arrived with the Indians they had a phenomenal process. They had done a great job of scouting players, developing players, they were very innovative in the way they signed players to multi-year contracts, but ultimately we got away from that.

All of our success to some degree actually began to stifle our innovative spirit, and we started slipping from the upper left column of the deserved success.

He goes on to mention that because the Indians were successful at the time, there was no impetus for change, no reason to be creative:

Seemingly, at least on the surface, there really was no crisis in Cleveland. We really were just trying to hang on, rather than continue to push forward.

In short, he had to go to a team (the Oakland A’s) that was losing, both games and money, in order to ask his questions. Can established organizations be creative? Maybe failure, not catastrophic failure, but failure nonetheless, is a prerequisite for creativity.

Information Technologies and International Development Journal

At the bottom of the latest MIT Press newsletter was the introduction of a new journal called “Information Technologies and International Development” or ITID for short. It’s focus is:

“… on the intersection of information and communication technologies with international development. Readers from academia, the private sector, NGOs, and government interested in the “other four billion”—the share of the world population whose countries are not yet widely connected to the Internet nor widely considered in the design of new information technologies.”

The entire first issue is available online for free.