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…and now a word from our real life…

Bibliosaurus is taking holiday for the remainder of 2012.

They say “if you want something done, ask a busy person.” But everything has its limit.

You can bet I will continue to devour others’ books and make my comments. Later. Just now I have collected galaxies of astronomy work, sudden new work in new scientific fields, and a much-too-long-deferred book of my own to weave. And this blog probably has enough, for now, to satisfy any craving for a bit of reading variety, or a snoop into my own pseudorandom thoughts.

And there will be more.
I’m not that easy to shut up.
But not just now.

So, until 2013…
–Eric

book: The Checklist Manifesto

book: Checklist Manifesto

True confession: Years ago, new pilot’s license in pocket, I was above the Gulf haze layer, flying myself home from the Redneck Riviera (Destin, Florida), but first needed a quick stop for fuel and, um, other necessities. I careened down to La Grange, Georgia’s airport amongst the trees, topped off both wing tanks, listened to the birds and ran through the pre-flight checklist as I remembered it, took off into a beautiful blue sky. A few minutes later, cruising north a mile above ground, I noticed my door was open. I looked down through a mile of hazy air at the forest and rivers passing far below. I strained to close the door (while flying) but against the rushing air could not so I shrugged and continued. And when I tied the plane down home at Knoxville I noticed the left wing’s gas cap was gone. Balanced on the footstep, I looked down into the tank to see (very little) fuel sloshing around. A few days later, the gas cap arrived in the mail from La Grange airport where they had found it lying on the pavement.

Pilots use checklists. As this book recounts, pilots practically invented checklists, live by them. That day–in the space of 2 minutes but a very critical 2 minutes, I let myself be distracted, screwed up twice and could have paid dearly for it. Flying without a gas cap could have siphoned all the fuel out from one tank, and because the wing tanks are connected, it would have meant the fuel from both tanks, and me looking for a place to put down gracefully, meaning “without having to die in the process”. But a perfectly good checklist sat right there in the door pocket, and had I followed it, I’d have made neither error (as I had never done before or certainly since), I’d have had no such story to tell, and this blog entry would have had a very different opening.

Once you, Gentle Reader, get past its epically moronic title, this book makes an excellent and engaging case for seeking places to use checklists. The author is a surgeon who got tired of hearing about patients being lost from stupid, preventable mistakes, tried to prevent these stupid mistakes with simple checklists, and then discovered that he himself was far from immune, that smart as he was he also made dumb mistakes, and he had to admit that even he benefited from checklists as much as anyone. (Well, except for his patients.)

The idea is summarized on page 177:

The checklist gets the dumb stuff out of the way, the routines your brain shouldn’t have to occupy itself with.

A checklist does its magic–and the very first time one saves your hide you’ll realize it is magic–by pushing repetitive but important items down in your consciousness, indeed right out of your brain onto paper, so that you can devote your precious brain power to higher-level, strategic or discretionary thoughts. And putting it this way, it occurs to me that checklists are a half-measure. That is, rather than reminding yourself to do something, why not automate the task rather than automating the remembering?

Toyota figured this out a long time ago–rather than enforcing a checklist item to install exactly 6 screws every time, make a dispenser that dispenses exactly 6 screws, and will lock and refuse to dispense again if any screws are left uninstalled? Passive systems and active automation are the next logical evolution of this central trend–partly technological and partly cultural–toward pushing the routine out of consciousness. No one remembers phone numbers any more.

So checklists, aside from serving as draft versions for later automation, will probably get relegated to arenas where forgetting a single item is catastrophic, and especially to arenas so chaotic and rushed that it’s easy to jump ahead and forget something important. Preparing an airplane to be supported by nothing but air definitely qualifies. Surgery prep, too. The author is a surgeon, and I see how checklists would get his attention–as a checklist should have gotten my own self-preserving attention one summer morning in La Grange, Georgia.

A great read, at times even riveting. Important and thought-provoking, but modest enough in tone, especially for a surgeon. Four stars +.

“The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right”, Atul Gawande, 2010, Henry Holt and Company.

book: Thinking Fast and Slow, review part 2

…and this is Part 2, in which I have to bring up a serious problem with this otherwise highly worthy book.

Let’s dive right in, but first let’s agree to be fair about this. Very few have accepted the daunting challenge of sorting out people’s various stupidities, or merely vagaries, or even their minor idiosyncrasies. Even when limited to the supposedly well-understood arena of economic behavior, ten career-long attempts fail for every career-long success. Let us now posit that Kahneman is solidly in the success category, that this book is a highly successful survey of his life’s work (so far!), and so let us accept one mistake, even a major one, in the midst of 400 pages of wisdom.

But it’s still a mistake, slander even. In the middle third of this book, Kahneman seems perpetually confused between description and prescription. That is: was Bernoulli’s logarithmic scale of utility (vs wealth) intended to say how people do behave, or how people should behave? And in either case: so what if Bernoulli didn’t get it exactly right? Bernoulli’s idea was that a person values each percent increase in wealth about equally, and this deceptively simple arithmetic leads directly to three profound and absolutely correct human consequences: (1) the rich care about any small unit of wealth (say, $1) less then do the poor; (2) people tend to be risk-averse rather than risk-seeking (since all logarithmic plots of utility vs wealth curve downward); and (3) all people’s risk aversion will get much, much stronger as the size of any gamble becomes a sizeable fraction of their accessible wealth. This is exactly how people behave, and Bernoulli pointed it out well ahead of his time. And to this point Kahneman agrees.

Yes, you can construct cases where logarithmic utility does not apply, but however interesting, most are artificial–for example the guy who desperately gambles his $100 stake all night because his homicidal loan shark demands $200 in the morning.

  • As things are, he will be extremely risk-seeking than logarithmic because $199 doesn’t do him any more good than $1. He’ll gamble like crazy.
  • If he does win $200 or a little more, then he suddenly goes extremely risk-averse–his life depends on keeping the $200. He won’t just stop gambling–he’ll hide in a dark corner until morning.
  • If he should hit the jackpot for say $1,000,000, he’ll go normal: a normal utility curve with normal risk-aversion. He’s past the loan-shark problem and will adjust to the rest of his life after it. Now in reality, such a person may start gambling again, but that would be against Bernoulli’s utility curve, that is…against his own interests. But some people do (and neither Bernoulli nor Kahneman covers these cases).

So over the past 50 years, Kahneman’s and others’ experiments have shown that the logarithmic curve doesn’t describe people’s actual behavior to the left (money-losing) side of the utility vs wealth curve. He calls this Prospect Theory, and if you want to know how normal people behave, his approximation to double the (logarithmic) utility lost is a better approximation than Bernoulli’s logarithmic description. This is an advance, it largely won Kahneman the Nobel Prize, and deservedly so.

But this does not give Kahneman the right to call Bernoulli wrong, or Bernoulli’s logarithmic utility curve a Mistake. Kahneman gratuitously started this fight, but let’s end it.

  • First of all: Bernoulli’s advance was momentous; Kahneman just tweaked the math. So there.
  • Second: for Kahneman to call Bernoulli’s advance a Mistake, Bernoullli would have to have claimed that the logarithmic curve is always correct, that it always describes everyone’s real behavior, and that it could never allow for tweaks like Kahneman’s. But Bernoulli didn’t say that, and Kahneman surely knows that.
  • Third: Even if Bernoulli never explicitly called his logarithmic curve an approximation, even if he never imagined that someone like Kahneman might someday improve on it, that hardly makes his work a mistake! Do we jeer at Newton just because Relativity came along? Do we call Einstein’s Special Relativity a Mistake because Einstein’s own General Relativity, um, generalized on it? Is the idea “DNA carries the genetic code” a Mistake because epigenetics improves on it? Everyone: can’t we please just celebrate all these brilliant advances from intellectuals on whose shoulders we stand, rather than slander their life’s work for book sales?
  • Finally, and for those who would apply Kahneman’s work to make money, by far the most important: Did Bernoulli intend his logarithmic utility curve to be descriptive of real people or prescriptive of optimal economic behavior (absent loan sharks and the like). Kahneman waffles on this over and over, but the distinction is absolutely crucial. Here’s why: Let’s say you follow Kahneman’s double-the-risk-aversion utility curve, which means simply that you will take gambles that maximize Kahneman’s utility curve. And now by contrast, I follow Bernoulli’s curve, taking gambles that maximize the expected logarithm of my wealth. We are presented with a series of gambles with variable odds payoff. And let’s say that you and I can even choose the size of each gamble defined as the maximum wealth we offer to risk. After a long series of these unforced gambles, here’s what happens: I rip your face off. Your artificially timid utility curve, grace à Kahneman, has put you at a slow, grinding disadvantage. Consider amateurs’ record in stock and commodities trading: QED.

Kahneman is brilliant, certainly, this is too much–Bernoulli is not here to defend himself. Someday imperfect Kahneman won’t be here either, and it will be only fair if a 2046 Nobel Laureate in Economics writes a chapter titled “Kahneman’s Mistake”.

And that’s enough about that. This is a great book, marred only by hubris in its middle chapters. In the later chapters I detect a too-hurried brain dump of useful ideas–especially the deadly and somehow invisible error of “Sunk Costs” which seems to reappear in the world like avian flu. If he hadn’t taken such long time (377 pages!) to distinguish between emotional utility and rational utility, indeed if this distinction had been clearer in his own mind as he wrote, he would had a clearer book (and not made so many mistakes himself). And he never quite gets to the greatest importance of his own System 1 vs System 2 distinction, namely: it’s your job, everyone’s job, to develop your thoughtful System 2 to keep your fast but very error-prone System 1 in check.

It’s called intelligence, and Kahneman’s right, in the short term it almost always amounts knowing that your first thought is not usually your best one. That is, always try to hold back your System 1 until System 2 has had a chance to censor it. Yes, that’s it. If you practice it, you will absolutely get much smarter (and far less neurotic in the bargain). In the long term, relentlessly exercise your slow-thinking System 2 to get faster and sharper. Never trust your reflexes (System 1) unless that’s all you’ve got–which would be almost never if you had used your System 2 in advance.

Always give your System 2 time to act. The harder it feels to do, the more important to do it. And until System 2 has responded: keep your mouth shut and your finger off that trigger.

“Thinking Fast and Slow”, Daniel Kahneman, 2011, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

book: Thinking Fast and Slow, review part 1

A very good book; would have been a great book but for one mid-course breakdown. 400+ pages of (what unfortunately isn’t) common sense and worth the effort, even accelerating from start to finish. An enthralling and varied road trip across the continent of Kahneman’s career at the crossroads of economics and psychology, which recently won him the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economics. And marred only by one breakdown, but it’s a dandy, a mid-trip totaling of the entire vehicle and breaking one’s leg, forcing any alert reader to hop painfully to some distant hospital before allowed to continue the excellent trip as the distaste fades. (The metaphor isn’t perfect, but that’s how it felt.)

And the trip is mostly good. The author skilfully recounts his witnessing (and often participating in or even leading) the past 40 years’ advances in economic psychology.

I took in some good new ideas, often wondering how in the world I could have missed them myself! And less forgivably–came across some ideas I had used in a different area, but had never thought of applying in another. One example, from page 85:

The principle of independent judgments (and decorrelated errors) has immediate applications for the conduct of meetings…A simple rule can help: before an issue is discussed, all members of the committee should be asked to write a very brief summary of their position…The standard practice of open discussion gives too much weight to the opinions of those who speak early and assertively, causing others to line up behind them.

How could I have missed this? Egad, I who have spent so many years ensuring that whatever measurement errors I can’t outsmart are at least decorrelated, to minimize their end effects. How could have missed this pure Bayesian admonition to benefit maximally on supposedly independent pieces of evidence by…ensuring they are really independent? Now, this bit of advice is not a complete solution, but it need not be complete to be useful.

I say it’s incomplete because there are 3 possible (I would say probable) kinds of correlations between the committee members’ thinking, one good, but 2 bad and the above idea deals with only 1 of them:

  1. One bad correlation: members influencing each other, right or wrong. Kahneman’s recommended pre-scribble exercise removes this one. Great. (I slap my head yet again.)
  2. But another bad source of correlation: too much similarity of the members themselves, naturally tending to restrict the range of possible solutions, and making those solutions correlate more than they should. This is why we invite unlike members onto a committee, or at least why you show outsiders your work before it’s committed to. You need not invite giraffes to serve on the committee, and you need not make permanent invitations to habitual troublemakers, though their occasional presence will probably do more good than harm. Even consultants might help–unless they’re too eager to please the committee (in which case: see previous correlation!).
  3. The good correlation: the members’ agree because, being well chosen, most of them are more often in touch with reality than not. This is what you hope for! And one important way to preserve this good correlation is to not overwhelm it with the two bad ones.

The book’s first third covers the author’s System 1 and System 2, representing two ways you solve problems. Since “the-first-damn-thing-that-pops-into-your-head” sounds a bit inelegant, the author calls this System 1. Thinking Fast. What you use when you reflect and use what you already know, together with a sense of how sure you are, or not: that’s System 2. Thinking Slow. Though I don’t think the author says so, I believe he would consider the two systems of thought as equally valid in their places.

I don’t agree. At all. Indeed: I could call “System 1 is just as valid as System 2” real fighting words–except that fighting is so System 1.

There are two cases where System 1 works well: (1) when fast response is critical, and (2) when the decision doesn’t matter. Kahneman gives fine examples of each: (1) jerking the steering wheel to avoid X, and (2) deciding which frivolous treat to buy at the counter. But these examples are either unavoidable or trivial. Real intelligence lies elsewhere.

And even in the two cases where System 1 seems to be OK: hey, are we really so helpless in the face of First Reactions? What ever happened to practicing something–even if only in thoughts–so that System 2 responses become System 1 responses. Even if everyone’s System 1 responses are similar–a very dubious assertion–what about faster and faster censoring of System 1 by System 2. How would anyone tell the difference? I’ll even assert that this is one’s primary path to achieving intelligence: faster and faster System 2 response, at least to suppress System 1’s damage until System 2 can fully take charge. It’s not magic, and it’s hardly new, as Samuel Johnson advised:

What we hope ever to do with ease, we must learn first to do with diligence.
Rephrasing in Kahneman’s terms: Work as long as you have to, to get your System 2 to dominate your System 1.. Always and completely. Without regret, without mercy. You’ll never quite get there, and there may be trivial cases where it has a place, but your general direction should be: Death to System 1.

...life intrudes. In a week or so, in a separate post, I will relate more of his Kahneman's ideas, and describe his one car wreck: how chapter "Bernoulli's Mistake" is really Kahneman's Mistake.

book: The Theory That Would Not Die

I’ve postponed this review for a month because, well, it’s a bad book. I spent time and effort to be certain of this–re-reading for unforgivably smug and fatuous tone, checking my many notes for the author’s obvious mistakes, and worst of all finding nearly every page of this book crammed with evidence of her utterly missing the very point of her subject. As though she were proud of her errors.

So this is a glib, pretentious, counterproductive book. A bad book–there, I wrote it. Now let’s get this review over with.

We begin with a thin sampling from her galaxy of goofs:

  • (p. 7) “…a thought experiment, a 1700s version of a computer simulation.” Good grief.
  • (p. 13) “Laplace, the future Einstein of his age”–what could such breathless fuzz mean? Beyond which: Einstein’s math skills certainly weren’t up to Laplace’s.
  • (p. 14) the gravitational pulls of Jupiter and Saturn on Halley’s comet make for a four-body problem, not a three-body problem (she forgot…the sun. Oops.).

That’s just to page 14. The author misunderstands false positives (p. 227), and she woefully confuses probabilities and utilities (pp. 103, 145, & 230-48), Bayesian chains and neural networks (p. 250), and weights and probabilities in maximum likelihood (p. 92)…I could recite perhaps 50 more goofs, but you get the idea.

The author casts 200 years of difficult conceptualization and experimentation–the hardest thought-work that exists–as some Jerry Springer food fight between two well-defined cadres of statisticians. Now, across 200 years and thousands of scientists, naturally there were insults. But the question of when and how to use Bayesian prior probability distributions is far from social or academic. Bayes’ Law describes everything you think about the world.

That is no exaggeration, and here’s why: If you responsibly set your prior probability of some given outcome at anything between 0% or 100%–that is, if you don’t pretend you know something you don’t–then even if you start with your priors’ being very wrong, when you’ve later gotten sufficient relevant evidence, that will overwhelm the priors, and when given the same evidence eventually everyone’s posterior distributions (what they believe) on a given subject will converge to about the same, with more agreement as evidence builds. Which is pretty much the history of science. But it requires that you set your priors somewhere between 0% and 100%, otherwise no evidence matters. You hold a coin. Is it the coin fair? Before flipping it repeatedly to find out, I’d best set my prior probability of its coming up heads to 50%. In this case and always, the key is not to pretend I know something I don’t know, that I cannot know without evidence. You can use your (unreliable) priors, but only as long as lack of evidence allows it.

But if instead you set you prior belief to 0% or to 100%, then no amount of evidence can ever change your belief. That’s not a definition, or an opinion, or a convention. It’s just math.

And right there is the real controversy about Bayes’ Law, the one the author misses and misses and misses, as though she means to. There’s no point in detailing tabloid-worthy bits of personal history when you don’t understand the theory of your book’s title. The real controversy is not between one academic statistical approach or the other, as this book would have you believe. Pay attention–the controversy is: whether blind faith is permissible or not. Whether it is legitimate–or even sane–to insist that one is necessarily right, no matter what evidence to the contrary. Whether one should strive for Minimally Informative Priors vs. strive to protect at all costs (and worse, to propagate) whatever you were taught as a child, whatever your social group or political party says, or whatever simply comforts you.

This point is far from new. Had the author bothered to actually consider what she wrote about, she would have come across hundreds of smarter people who have explained this point patiently, as (Thomas Huxley): “Sit down before fact as a little child, be prepared to give up every preconceived notion, follow humbly wherever and to whatever abysses nature leads you, or you shall learn nothing.” I can’t imagine a better lay explanation of Bayes’ Law’s importance. Except perhaps for numerous warnings against clinging to priors, probably mankind’s primary failing. As warned by Bertrand Russell: “The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.” Farther back, Emerson: “A sect or a party is an elegant incognito, devised to save a man from the vexation of thinking.” Or must I take you back to Aristotle?–“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”

Science’s rich tradition of facing squarely the potential conflicts between what we (at first) expect and what we then measure–this tradition is all available to the author and to everyone. But the author ignored all this to favor her own brand of sloppy daytime-TV journalism. Thus: I do not forgive this author. And it’s hard to understand the Yale University Press’ decision to include this mess under its mark.

So–One Star for getting their spelling right, I guess, and for random bits of personal history that amuse harmlessly. But, Gentle Reader, you’re advised to avoid this book lest you too risk forfeiting a month’s mental effort to bulldoze its continents of crap from your cranium. You’re welcome.

“The Theory That Would Not Die”, Sharon Bertsch McGrayne, 2011, Yale University Press.

3 quickie reviews

Lighter fare from the holidays:

CD: Emblem, Amethystium: Velvet technofunk as invented by some lost, ancient, marbled Mediterranean culture–the isle of Lesbos, perhaps. Moves along at IQ about 230 (which is to say, Ryan Farish without all that brain damage). Alien, inscrutable. At moments, quite wonderful.

Movie: Children of Men: Somehow emerges in toto as better than its deeply, deeply silly premise and script. Long post-urban battles are the stuff of unwaking nightmares. Interestingly made, worth seeing again perhaps.

Movie: The Ghost Writer: Think what we will about Roman Polanski–the guy does know how to make a movie. The premise is essentially Curiosity-draws-smart-person-into-Trap, a la Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (the true Swedish film, not Hollywood’s…thing). But it’s contrived and ultimately tiresome to hang your entire story on a truly smart person’s being so easily and repeatedly trapped. For all the filmmaking skills so obviously on display here, the Ghost Writer is fun enough to watch but is never quite believable or memorable. No, it’s in Curiosity-draws-smart-person-into-Horrific-Puzzle premises that Polanski shines white-hot, for example in Une Pure Formalite in which he starred (how will filmdom ever top discovering that…you’re dead?), and of course his own utterly unmatchable Chinatown.

So much for diversion–never fear, a savage book review is in the works…

miniseries: “House of Cards”

And just in time for the holidays, in we go for a deliciously guilty pleasure, this BBC trilogy–and above all Ian Richardson in the role of a lifetime, not only career-defining but for my money genre-defining.

As Francis Urquhart–“FU” to press, colleagues, and enemies alike–the amiable and devious mid-level political henchman (do we still use that word?) become prime minister become global nemesis, Mr. Richardson becomes first the master politician, then the Force of Nature. As per Mencken, he is one of those upon whom nothing is lost, and in the first part of the trilogy, you watch him absorbing tactics like a sponge. He is extremely old school, dressing brilliantly, speaking brilliantly, and brilliantly cold while seeming quite perfectly warm. All the while confirming others’ shrewd guesses in no manner his enemies or press can use: “You might very well think that, but I couldn’t possibly comment.”

Some special mentions.

  • The tenth episode, especially in its first 15 minutes, is the finest brief tutorial on political maneuvering I’ve seen on film–or anywhere.
  • The numerous scenes depicting PMQs (Questions to the Prime Minister, wherein the PM responds to and parries with members of the House of Commons, particularly the opposition, standing to face and answer them directly) are exhilarating. Yes, these script dialogs are surely idealized, but especially an American must wonder at the relevance, high literacy, and articulateness of such political discourse compared to their own.
  • Ian Richardson addresses the viewer directly with at first alarming frequency. Don’t worry, it’s part of the introduction–dare I say seduction–process. It may even cause you to worry about your own real immunity to intelligent charm of this relentless intensity, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Then, at first hardly noticed, a dissonance creeps in. Standing next to a deep-thinking career diplomat, Urquhart appears…superficial? Could this be? And then a comment is just a bit more sadistic than even serves his ambition. He becomes careless, loses trains of thought, obsesses about outdoing Thatcher’s era. As a menace to himself it’s only deserved, but when it becomes a menace to others and he a bit doting, no this won’t do, and the system won’t accept it. The series conclusion that seems at first melodramatic is the only practical end, and a well-constructed mirror of the third trilogy part’s opening, wherein FU chats up the viewer behind his country home while shooting and burying an old dog that has simply lived beyond utility.

(About the production values: occasionally cheesy, as typical of the period, c.f. Wiseguy in the US. And the Netflix Streaming version I saw suffered a ghastly green cast, probably a video transfer problem. A DVD copy, if you can find one, might be better. But either way, don’t let it stop you.)

Ian Richardson, Shakespearean career notwithstanding, was born to this role and possesses it entirely; for twelve hours he looks, speaks, winks, thunders, and connives as Francis Urquhart, and you cannot take your eyes from him.

I know. TV. Still…Five Stars.

“House of Cards” trilogy, BBC miniseries (three groups of 4 50-minute episodes), BBC, 1990.

book: “Three Men In A Boat (To Say Nothing Of The Dog…)

This least unknown book from an underknown and entirely underappreciated writer drags the reader along on an improbably, utterly ridiculous voyage up and not quite down the Thames about 1880. The dominant genres of its humor are turnabout and bizarre descriptive meanderings, a la Monty Python who quite obviously owe much to Jerome K. Jerome (apparently his real name).

The dog, inexplicably named Montmorency, is not simply a bad dog, or an ill-behaved dog, but disreputable. When they cover their boat against the elements, it

…converts the boat into a sort of little house, and it is beautifully cozy, though a trifle stuffy; but there, everything has its drawbacks, as the man said when his mother-in-law died, and they came down upon him for the funeral expenses.

And it’s not just Monty Python and their brand of exaggeration who owe Mr. Jerome. Indeed, Clint Eastwood, you’re found out…compare Will Munny’s rant (on the sign over his friend’s body, in Unforgiven) to the boater enraged by river-blocking signs who, pre-quoting Mr. Eastwood, not only:

wanted to kill the man who caused the board to be put up, but that he should like to slaughter the whole of his family and all his friends and relations, and then burn down his house.”

…leaving his companions agog, but only for a instant, as seamlessly they wander to singing comic songs upon the grave, and then on how badly the boater sings followed by anecdotes demonstrating his tone-deafness in salons back in London, salon dinner fare and indigestion from bad cooking, egad the confounded help these days, etc etc

And this being England, history blends with travelogue, here while floating by Reading:

Parliament generally rushed off to Reading whenever there was a plague on at Westminster; and, in 1625, the Law followed suit, and all the courts were held at Reading. It must have been worth while having a mere ordinary plague now and then in London to get rid of both the lawyers and the Parliament.

But these are the exception, in there for color and contrast. Behind the humor however inappropriate or baffling, emerges brushstroke by brushstroke Jerome’s canvas of a gentle, affluent England, which in the end offers up quite a sweet little book…

in which to dream of bygone days, and vanished forms and faces, and things that might have been, but are not, confound them.

I myself probably more enjoyed another of Jerome’s little books, “Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow”–but no matter. Four stars for this one.

“Three Men In A Boat (To Say Nothing Of The Dog…)”, Jerome K. Jerome, 1889, CreateSpace Press.

book: “The Lifecycle of Software Objects”

You know the college-party’s at-first-cool but then scary question: “If you could know details of your future…would you?” And then would you live differently? Would you better use the time you’ll have, or would expectations paralyze you? Listen–if you would answer No, you may have a very hard time with Ted Chiang’s novella The Lifecycle of Software Objects, a highly perceptive elaboration of what’s coming, and believe me we are none of us emotionally equipped for it.

Which won’t stop it. Duck.

Just beneath the sober techno-talk, this is not only a tightly written book of ideas, but also a gnawing, worrisome tale of obsession, greed, devotion, guilt, and nearly-parental love. The story will be clearer for readers with experience in object-oriented programming. (…And I’m guessing that’s the first appearance ever of that sentence.

Long ago, Descartes’s mind-body dualism succumbed to mounting physical and medical evidence that we are, essentially, our bodies and physical brains. To stabilize mental health, we no longer wave chickens or speculate on one’s vital humours–we use computers to design molecules that will bind to known chemical receptors in the nervous system. If we activate an electrode just here in your brain, you suddenly see a zebra and might suddenly love or hate it, which would be very hard to blame on your soul. So for human minds and bodies, Descartes largely got it wrong. But Chiang’s book suggests a huge comeback for dualism from a direction Descartes and his detractors could never anticipate: from constructed minds and bodies. One of the very points of organizing software as objects is to separate logic from presentation, mind from appearance. And here, this story gets extremely specific about separating a created personality (program) from its presentation (avatar or physical robot) and convincingly describes how easily people will get used to it. Until they find themselves attached.

Because “user-friendly” may turn out to have no bounds, and when we consider that humans are already outnumbered worldwide by hidden embedded logic systems (think cell phones and vehicle computers), and when we witness the innocence with which people admit outright love for iPhones, imagine what will happen when created programs can speak, ask for treats, teach each other on their own (happening now on the web), play with other creatures for their own amusement, and pout like a pet or like a child. Chiang’s coup is to sketch how this might turn out, and after reading we must admit he has a point. Chiang explores what happens when before too long this love and devotion to software objects becomes literally true. I covered my eyes but looked through my fingers.

Chiang has tended to explore the more emotional consequences of taking “user-friendly” to an extreme: playfulness, love of children and pets, even sex (if durable sexual response requires thinking and feeling, then should sexual software objects that appear to think and feel hurt be considered slaves, and should that slavery be legal?). One other consequence is almost glossed over, though: what happens when a digient (software personality) pleads like an irresistible child to be incorporated? This may be within the law right now–remember that a corporation is already defined as a “fictitious person”. This epiphany should make your heart skip a beat. Forget fighting over mere patent status for software, skip straight to granting corporate status to self-aware software. Once in a while a corporation makes a mess even with human oversight; what will happen when software objects can legally borrow money, hire and fire, and lobby for legislation (binding on humans) presumably toward their own corporate purposes? What sorts of software objects and physical presentations could they manufacture, and could those become corporations? Could they build a variety of incorporated daughter objects, turn them loose on the economy, and accept the failure rate to ensure winners which will beget better objects over time–and is that essentially evolution, at a rate we can’t compete with? So the path to power isn’t science-fiction’s rather tired path of warfare on humans, rather corporate influences trump even wars’ influence–the real-world trend for 50 years, already. Yes OK, this all seems a distant extrapolation from that iPhone you just dropped in your latte…except that Chiang has brilliantly shown that when the first object passes a Turing test, it will be awfully late to consider what we’ll do about it.

Despite myself, I couldn’t help marveling at this story as a virtual manual for the emotional roller-coaster ride that we’re probably going to let AI and Turing tests put us on. This book succeeds in its aims no matter what quibbles about its premise or presentation. So: Five stars. I don’t care how trendy Ted Chiang and this book are at the moment. This is a book I will read again after a time. Of course, it may be scarier then.

“The Lifecycle of Software Objects”, Ted Chiang, 2010, Subterranean Press.

book: “A Sense of Urgency”

Kotter's Sense of Urgency After our latest forays into very deep literature, let’s do something way less deep. For example this book, A Sense Of Urgency, which I admit lounged unread on my shelf for 3 years badabing.

This celebrated book by a celebrated business guru covers our era’s most celebrated business theme: our era of change. Never mind that practically all other eras have bemoaned exactly the same. But then a pleasant surprise: the author disposes of that with not much more than “let us posit that the world is changing” and dives right into responses you should avoid, first among those being “don’t substitute some false sense of urgency for a real one.” Happily, he specifically denounces slave-driving and cheerleading. Though later in the book he skirts these traps now and then himself, already in chapter two this early caution is promising and a real relief. His several examples of false urgency ring true. And it’s here that the book really begins to gain credibility and interest.

Chapter 7 bears excellent advice on neutralizing “NoNos”, those who root against a change by broadcasting unsupported or untestable objections. The author accurately and clearly distinguishes their unhealthy behavior from healthy skepticism–rarely done correctly–and then he surpasses himself by offering 3 approaches to handling the transgressors. After reading this chapter for the second time, I realized that in my management life I’ve used each of the three approaches at one time or another. They did work (others didn’t).  The advice could profit from even more elaboration, perhaps in its own book. Oh, wait!–Kotter did write a profitable book on the subject, and that book is advertised in this book dozens upon dozens of times. And thus we witness product placement infecting the business book business like septicemia. This should not be allowed to detract from the chapter’s valuable blood-and-guts guidance on handling passive-aggressive NoNos.

As with any ambitious book, there are problems. In getting your message across (p. 47):

Generally, the challenge is to fold a rational case directed toward the mind into an experience that is very much aimed at the heart.

No. Sentimentality may be a preferred tool of despots everywhere, but it doesn’t seem sensible that employees properly hired and led will be best influenced by wrapping any number of Care Bears pastels around your meaty rational case for tax implications of cross-department amortization charges. With mustard, to go please. It doesn’t make your change sandwich tastier. It just insults your employees’ intelligence, and once you’ve gained their attention, more “heart” clouds problem-solving rationality rather than enhancing it. Why not try simply talking to those you lead? Get over yourself, just make your best case for what matters and why–early, yes, and often, yes. If your real business case turns out to be emotional as well as rational, fine and don’t shrink from that. But “constructing an experience” by “folding facts into heart” is not “the challenge”. Your change situation is no movie experience, the pink slips (if you mess up) will have no violin sound track, and you’re no Spielberg.

The book has other problems; I’ll limit myself to just one more (p. 185):

Behaviors that are the norm [in a culture of urgency] include being constantly alert, focusing externally, moving fast, stopping low-value-added activities that absorb time and effort, relentlessly pushing for change when it is needed, and providing the leadership to produce smart change no matter where you are in the hierarchy.

Anyone reader not retching must have spent the last 10 years either (1) outside the business world, (2) flinging random commandments from the the top of the business world, or (3) writing business books. I’m not even saying the quote is false. I’m not saying its machine-gun effect isn’t well intended. I’m saying that reading a sentence like this has the effect of being shown, without warning, a staccato sequence of all the shootings and aftermaths in the Godfather series condensed to 30 seconds–a special effect with specious affect.

This book’s central problem, though, is its assumption throughout that stalwart workers can be converted into star workers on demand. Professor Kotter might want to get out of his chair, walk down the hallway of his own department, and have a chat with Thomas J. DeLong who knows better. Maybe they have done. Good, you two, now go please reconcile your views, and that would be a book worth getting urgent about.

For A Sense of Urgency as it stands, though: if you suspect your own leadership predicament calls for urgency, it probably does, and you will certainly benefit from this book–for you it rates four stars at least. If instead you glom onto its fashionable title without its lessons, you seriously risk becoming seen as (and possibly actually becoming) one more manic corporate cheerleader, with pink slips for those who don’t cheer along quite loudly enough…and I posit we already have enough of those. For you poor souls the book rates two stars at best.

“A Sense Of Urgency”, John P. Kotter, 2008, Harvard Business Press.

book: “Sentimental Education”

cover of "Sentimental Education", FlaubertLife is messy. If you didn’t believe that before reading Sentimental Education, it’s not Flaubert’s fault if you fail to believe it afterward.

The famous mid-19th-century flourishing of the novel came on very rapidly, and this book is a milestone. Though its characters, mores, and points of view are early-19th-century in being limited almost uniformly to leisure and salon characters–that is, the apparently moneyed, whether they had money at the moment or not–the style has become unmoored from Balzac’s chumminess with the reader and finds itself at sea. The reader may come along, or not, though “not” would be foolish, because though this novel’s style is unmoored, the appearance of drifting is an illusion. The style shifts are utterly deliberate. The sure hand on the rudder is Flaubert’s, and he firmly guided the construction and style of this long, exhausting, historical, and sometimes breathtaking tale.

This is a picaresque novel–of sorts–but against convention, the young and then not-so-young man is almost never referred to as “our hero”. And rightly not:

He hurried to the Café Anglais, where he had a splendid supper, and while he was eating he said to himself, “What a fool I was, back home, with my lovesick sorrow. Why, she scarcely recognized me! What a little bourgeois she is!”

And in a sudden burst of animal health, he resolved to lead a selfish life.

And he follows this resolve, as often as not. The problem, though, is that this protagonist doesn’t know what he wants, or rather he wants a number of things at nearly the same time, each vision of his desire amounting to a mere frame in the continuous emotional action movie that is this book.

But he desired her as an exotic, inaccessible object, because she was noble, because she was rich, because she was devout, telling himself that she had delicate feelings as exquisite as her face, with holy medals next to her skin and modest blushes in the midst of debauchery.

Almost as much as being a personal tale of desire and indecision, Sentimental Education is a historical novel. The detail of time and place is encyclopedic, as when the rich can afford to have straw thrown on the cobbles before their houses, to prevent passing carts from waking their ill. But just as often the people are trapped by their times in ways they cannot quite figure out.

“But has anybody the right to fight a duel?”

“It’s a relic of barbarism, and there’s nothing to be done about it.”

The reader smiles, then shudders. Flaubert, without having to say so, gently reminds any self-aware reader how easy it is to allow the barbaric to pass, and how younger generations may judge us for succumbing–and then later it will be their turn. The satire is nonstop, witty, and unexpected in timing, predating by decades (and no doubt influencing) Oscar Wilde and others. At the salon, two young men point out an older gentleman:

“He’s one of the old guard, with nothing to his name but his Croix d’honneur and his pension. He plays uncle to girls on the make in high society, arranges duels, and dines out at other people’s expense.”

“A scoundrel?” said Frédéric.

“No, a decent fellow.”

And there it is. It would be easy to miss. In this seemingly inconsequential salon exchange, the two young men vacillate between seeing this older gentleman as a target of ridicule, or as a worthy outcome for their own lives. This simple exchange is not a witticism but in fact captures the moral–the tragedy if there is one–of this great tale: that this very ambivalence between nobility and acquisitiveness played itself out in the young men’s lives for decades, and in the end this inability to choose defined who they were, and who their generation was.

In finding this astoundingly original, almost creepily perceptive, sweeping and wonderful book, Bibliosaurus is on a roll. Five stars.

“Sentimental Education”, Gustave Flaubert, 1869, Geoffrey Wall’s 2004 revision of Robert Baldick’s 1964 translation from the French, Penguin Books.

book: “Farewell to Matters of Principle”

book: Farewell to Matters of PrincipleIn the 1990s I scored a clean hardback copy from a used bookstore in College Park, Florida. I read the thing but did not understand it. At all. Last week it tumbled from a mover’s box, and after laughing at the title I found myself on the sofa re-reading it. Could not put it down. Assuming that the book itself had not transmogrified, I gathered it must be I who had changed. This thin book was simply ahead of its time. And–apparently–well ahead of me. Well, no more.

Having established the mischievous, delightful title, the author proceeds to delineate his thoughtful, unflinching, and ultimately muscular school of philosophy by making a number of important cases. I’ll quote for two. This first quote derives the book’s title better than I could:

Life is always too brief to allow one to disengage oneself as much as one would like from what one already is, by changing oneself. One simply does not have time for that…Skeptics deal…with the inevitability (due to our mortality) of traditions…skeptics are not those who as a matter of principle know nothing; it is just that they do not know anything that is a matter of principle. Skepticism is not the apotheosis of perplexity; it is simply a bidding farewell to matters of principle. (pp 14-15)

By principle, the author means not only principles upon which one settles, intentionally or not, on one’s daily choices and actions, but also the more fundamental sense of: axiom, first principles, givens–those core, foundational, perhaps hidden beliefs on which one bases other beliefs. But this is not the only approach by which one can organize his beliefs–indeed, not the approach that the author’s school of philosophy recommends. If one begins with skepticism of overarching principles proffered by others yet assumed infallibly true in themselves (as in religion, blind patriotism, etc), then one can only work backwards from evidence, reality, and ruthless logic back to guideline, or if the evidence is consistent and logical, perhaps to a kind of principle. But these guidelines suggested by scrutinizing of reality are not real principles in Marquard’s sense: they will always be subject to revision. For example, starting from any number of childhoods, it’s pretty easy as an adult to conclude that stealing is bad and to adopt a guideline or self-imposed rule avoiding it. Most of us do just that, and it coincides nicely with religious principles that are handed down on authority or revelation. And, fine, perhaps they stay in agreement most of the time, but what if your family in wartime is truly starving and will die, and now someone leaves 20 loaves of bread in the open to cool? A skeptic will steal and watch his family eat, and sleep better for having done it. But various religious commandments require that you watch your family starve for a principle. We’ve all heard the pious Tsk Tsk about “Situational Ethics”; whereas skeptics just shrug. Of course ethics are situational–because life is.

Consider this second quote:

Hermeneutics is the art of getting out of a text what is not in it…it is a reply to human finitude…This sort of interpretation…is a reply to transitoriness, and it is more prevalent the more the alteration of reality accelerates and thus produces more and more loss-of-familiarity…We gain, through hermeneutics, a second-level openness to the world.

The problem with refusing to interpret words is just this: you’re always interpreting–you cannot not interpret–whether you know you are interpreting or not. You must both: (try to) import the words’ meaning from the writer’s world into your own world, and imagine just what the writer could have meant in his own world. It’s also true with spoken words. It can be very hard work. We know how much trouble even long-married couples can have understanding each other. So then, why would anyone pretend we can avoid any form of interpretation when reading words from someone half a planet, a language, and two millennia away?

For whatever reasons, the author omits one advantage of skepticism over reliance on (given) principles: manipulation. It is much easier for someone to get you to accept whatever principles they’d like you to follow if you haven’t developed (or have been persuaded or even instructed not to develop) skeptical habits of continually calibrating your beliefs with worldly evidence. Ideological authorities typically employ the word “freethinker” as a pejorative. Which says more about ideology’s shortcomings than it ever says about free thought.

This is pretty far from a beginner’s book in philosophy. It is a book to navigate as much as to read. Some words probably work better in German than in modern English, but the author invariably has chosen well. As example, “overtribunalization” is almost poetic in its density of meaning, and the reader should thank the author for using one word where a lesser author would have written many. Here, “overtribunalization” refers to the obsessive moral judge for whom every soup has a fly in it, every differing political act is treachery, and every intention other than their own is malevolent and punishable–every conversation ends up a tribunal. There are numerous Germanic words in this book, but getting to the root meaning of each one proved an enriching exercise, a path to insights I wouldn’t otherwise reach. This book richly rewards a close reading.

As I close here at the keyboard, I find myself shaking my head and laughing out loud. All the above hardly touches my notes and the ideas I wanted to recount and react to. There is no way to; this book is too rich a lode. So I’m folding all these note scraps neatly in half and closing them behind the black cloth cover, and that, I suppose, is where my estate will one day find them. Any proper review might be longer than the book itself. Which means: Marquard and his wonderful book got it right the first time.

Five stars. Without a doubt.

“Farewell to Matters of Principle”, Odo Marquard, 1989, translation from the German by Robert M. Wallace et al, Oxford University Press.

book: “On the Nature of Things”

Lucretius, On the Nature of ThingsHow I wish, how I wish–O How I Wish I had read this book when I was fifteen. Never in my life and its perhaps two thousand books has any one reading proven so unexpectedly fulfilling for the present, and alas so inflicting of wincing remorse for all my years lessened, somewhat poorer, for not having read it. I closed the book a hundred times to reflect–to wonder agog at how anyone could have figured out so many important things two thousand years ago when a really round wheel was high-tech, and wondering still more about how the human race can stumble around running into the same old difficulties for a hundred generations, when this book was right there for the reading.

Let me start over.

The first third or so of the book expounds his famous “atoms and the void” hypothesis and very many consequences of it. Contrary to the legends, “atoms and the void” is not a claim that raw materialism is the only reality. It’s actually a chemical hypothesis that atoms exist (predating Niels Bohr by 2,000 years), and even more remarkably that there is void space in and between these very tiny atoms. When I read his explanation that olive oil is viscous because the bodies (atoms or molecules) are intertwined, but water is not viscous because the forms are smaller and not so intertwined, I almost dropped the book!–this is exactly correct, and a point some chemistry graduate students fumble even today.

Unfortunately some conjectures are more off the mark, for example, asserting that rounder molecules are sweeter (in fact they are more likely to be bitter). But in a way, this only points out the extremely strong influence of Aristotle and Plato (round figures are more perfect) in those times, and watching Lucretius more often than not escape the prejudices of his times is encouraging. Generally, people do not even perceive the prejudices and assumptions they live in. The phrase is “fish don’t know they’re in the water.” But Lucretius had an almost superhuman ability to see outside these assumptions, and to strive to see things for what they are, not what he was taught or indoctrinated to see.

Lucretius’s most precise tool was the gedankenexperiment–the thought experiment. Taking an initial observation to its logical conclusion, subject to everything else you can observe, and without judging the conclusion by common sense or propriety. When considering “what do we experience after we die”, he asks the obvious and symmetric question “what did we experience before we were born?” Oh my, proper folks won’t like that answer. Most people capable of even having that thought will drop it as though it’s dangerous, scalding. Which it is. But not Lucretius. He concluded that we probably experience nothing after we die, and then fearlessly extended some related thought experiments to conclude that the nature of the mind and soul are corporeal, a function of the body (which Descartes got wrong 1700 years later, and most people still get wrong today). He supported his suspicion that the soul is a brain function with observations as varied (and directly on-target) as a dog’s growling and barking while asleep, and how one’s thoughts and emotions are so influenced by (mere) bodily illness–and the blood chemistry the illness changes. This was startlingly correct, and against all theories of his day–and so correct that we moderns have built an entire antidepressant industry based on its details.

He deduced scientific principles that were very, very far ahead of Roman state of the art, including: conservation of mass; immutability of the elements (whatever the elements would turn out to be); immutability of the species; impossibility of spontaneous generation of life; the fallibility of sight, sound, and “what’s obvious” in investigating nature. And he did it not by guessing or claiming divine revelation or personal authority. He did it by cross-examining nature without mercy, and by trusting nothing, himself least of all.

The book is an absolute tour de force of accurate intellect, It’s an inspiration–unmatched in all my experience–to everyone who knows how hard it is to get things right and yet how important it is to try.

It’s a very spooky foretaste as well of the other great thought experimenter of all time, 2000 years later: Albert Einstein. Neither attempted physical experiments, but both observed the world and applied decades of their absolutely relentless, white-hot stare-downs of reality, and presented their correct and baffling findings without most of their contemporaries even understanding what they were talking about. Sure, they both got some things wrong (Einstein’s rejection of quantum mechanics), but the monumental scale of what they got right–and their explanations of how they figured it out in the first place–is rightfully their lasting legacy.

Sidebar regarding Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations : Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things is the book I thought Aurelius’s Meditations might be. But Aurelius, forgive me, comes across as a conformist and prig whose physical, scientific, social, and biological explanations ended in “Because God wanted it that way”, complete with attendant peer pressure to “fall in line like good boys and girls.” And the peer pressure would have been hard to ignore–he was a Roman Emperor. Now, I might have been smarter to expect just this from a writer who was, after all, not primarily a thinker but a government administrator very fond of order, quiet, and civic virtues. While I myself can be pretty fond of order, quiet, and civic virtue–no, not when it collides with my drive to question and probe. Whereas Lucretius’s mind and quill forayed into wherever dangerous territory his observation and logic took him. Marcus Aurelius was a good enough Stoic, right up to the point that it might suggest he stop spending his life rampaging across Europe and slaughtering whole peoples. One last dead giveaway: Lucretius, needing no external authority, wrote in his native Latin; Marcus Aurelius felt he needed to write in Greek, 200 years later, to be sure he was taken seriously.

A single caution to modern readers–the book is in heavily metrical verse, and translated to 1910-era literary English. It’s tough going for the first 15-20 pages. “Germs” mean atoms (or molecules), and words like “may’st” and “aught” might cause a stumble, but only the first time or two. After which the insights and jawdropping metaphors and conclusions come at you so fast, that the style begins to race by and make transparent sense. I found myself looking forward to reading it, and I missed the style badly when I had finished the book.

Titus Lucretius Carus can still speak perfectly well for himself, from 2,067 years ago (on the importance of molecular structure to physical properties, and on the constant motion of atoms even if not visible):

And thus may’st know it matters with what others
And in what structure the primordial germs
Are held together, and what motions they
Among themselves to give and get; nor think
That aught we see hither and thither afloat
Upon the crest of things, and now a birth
And straightaway now a ruin, inheres at rest
Deep in the eternal atoms of the world.

Five stars. A book that makes me glad I lived long enough to finally read it, and to recommend it. And which hereby takes its place in my Top 10 Books.

“On the Nature of Things”, Lucretius (Titus Lucretius Carus), ca. 58 BC. Metrical translation of William Ellery Leonard, 1916, which translation is highly recommended and available from several publishers (mine is a 1950 hardback from Everyman’s Library).

book: “The Choice”

book cover: The ChoiceThis is the second of Mr. Goldratt’s books I’ve read (previously The Goal). And this may be the last. Not because it’s bad–quite the opposite!–but because taken together, these books proved comprehensive and clear enough for me to understand his approach to business improvement.

This book’s message is encapsulated on p. 48: “… as long as we think that the only way to handle a conflict is by compromising, we’ll never think about the underlying assumptions and how to remove at least one of them; we’ll never find the way to eliminate the conflict; we’ll never come up with the breakthrough; we’ll never reveal the great opportunity that hides there.” This is true, and for once I don’t complain that an author writes 165 pages to make one case.

Indeed, I’m tempted to wish he’d taken it farther–every skilled business consultant, most engineers, and many scientists will recognize Goldratt’s message here as the universal warning against Premature Optimization. “Don’t assume your local optimum is the global optimum” or “At least consider you might find a better local optimum.” This isn’t mentioned. Still, the book makes the case for exploring the solution space around current practices-especially around practices comfortably assumed to be optimal–and it provides well-developed and very helpful examples.

In any book of this ambition, you’ll find a few boo-boos.

  • This claim I find extremely dubious (p.49): “…reality, any part of reality, is governed by very few elements, and…any existing conflict can be eliminated.” Ouch. I’m pretty sure that just 10 minutes with any competent molecular biologist will reduce Mr. Goldratt to babbling his apologies. But another, more hidden meaning is that we can find a better solution to any problem. Evidence, please?
  • Goldratt occasionally crosses the line from encouragement to dogma. “A win-win solution always exists.” (p. 76) Always? Doubtful in the extreme. Again: evidence, please?
  • This crossing the line into dogma happens without warning (p.117): “The key to thinking clearly is avoid circular logic, that’s all.” No, Mr. Goldratt, take a breath–you know bloody well that’s not all. There are also: prefer evidence over feeling (prefer Bayes’ Law evidence over posteriors); indeed, positively seek evidence that might contradict your theories; reject ad hominem evaluations of an idea (beyond, that is, as just another small piece of evidence–and even then, perhaps more about the speaker rather than about the idea itself); etc etc.
  • Possibly the book’s ugliest and worst transgression (p. 157): “The deeper the emotions…the higher the chances to successfully apply logic.” Egad. Barf. I don’t care by what path Goldratt gets to this sad mistake, or in what logical sequence he may include it. This assertion demonstrates only that there’s no level of brilliance that can prevent occasionally writing something abysmally stupid. Every sane genius and peacemaker from Socrates to Bertrand Russell to Gandhi to the Dalai Lama has warned about how intense emotions dangerously cloud the mind even while making things seem clear. Plus the mountains of experimental evidence to back this warning. So the statement is baffling. I can only assume charitably that it perhaps arises from an understandable second-language conflation of “emotion” more with “motion” and “motivation” than with “irrationality.” Whatever riches our intense emotions may render to life, they are no path to logical behavior. Ask any jailer, any historian, any divorce lawyer.

Lastly I think that in this book, Goldratt’s device of putting words into his well-educated daughter’s mouth so he then can give brilliant answers never quite works. It comes across as weird, and once or twice on personal notes even creepy. But then, Goldratt records all his business insights as personal books. The two I’ve read have been astute and much more entertaining than other business books (a low standard, I know). So let’s not complain about small things. Let’s just read and grasp.

And it’s worth the effort. Not only businessmen, but scientsts and engineers (particularly in the business world) could do a lot worse than to devour a book of this depth and on this subject, once or twice a year.

A quick read, and a valuable refresher. Four stars.

“The Choice”, Eliyahu M. Goldratt, 2008, North River Press.

book: “Made to Stick”

This famous book insists on short, vivid communication. And takes (wait for it) 252 pages to say so. Without a single graphic.

But that’s not the worst from these two glib and tongue-tied brothers. Here’s the worst (check your air bags):

  • Guys, guys, there’s no “Curse of Knowledge”. Certainly there is “Not Adjusting to Your Audience” (primal sin of teaching), there’s “protecting your position through jargon”, etc etc…but to call it Curse of Knowledge?–no. In pure mid-2000s fashion, you just made that up. (Hint: if your goal is to educate, worry more about Curses of Ignorance.)
  • The authors fret too much about complexity. “Simple” is the book’s first principle, but in failing ever to go farther, it ends up being the Simple of Simple Simon. Maybe even that serves to hook the listener, but they can never acknowledge that they’re speaking to adults or that the real world is, in fact, complex. They advocate (despite their own 252 pages) that all life is digestible in a billboard or sound bite. They even claim (p. 50): “When your remote control has 50 buttons, you can’t change the channel any more.” Bull. Just get an IQ over 50.
  • And in case the authors are just now catching up with the Ancient Greeks: please distinguish an idea from its expression. These authors pretend to write about ideas, but instead write about rhetoric–not an idea in sight. Now rhetoric is fine and I’m using some of its tools here, but the essential problem with blurring rhetoric with ideas is that rhetorical tools are orthogonal to the value of the ideas they represent. To be blunt, rhetorical tools sell (“make sticky”) lies just as well as they sell truth–possibly sell lies even better, since truth by definition is already bolstered by reality. But the authors never worry much about truth until page 146, and not much after.
  • The book is summarized on page 246, in “5 goals for your audience”. Now, if the authors believed enough in their own advice to follow it, they should have just tweeted these 15 words and been done–of course then there wouldn’t have been all those juicy royalties. But more importantly: there’s a big problem with nailing a sticky note into your listener’s forehead and calling it education, and that problem is not some catchy “Curse of Knowledge”. The problem with Advertising as Education is that human intelligence is not based on a sticky idea, but on the very hard work of integrating a new idea with everything else.  Many TED talks help do just that. Whereas Made to Stick points away and winks “Look! The Hindenburg!”

So, forget learning how to make lively presentations by burying yourself in 252 pages of dusty-dry text. Rather…learn from lively presentations!

  • Watch some TED talks. To experience state of the art in presentations, it almost doesn’t matter which ones you watch.
  • Save time: for a very vivid, grin/grimace presentation of ideas about ideas about ideas–a throwback to a time when the intelligent could juggle multiple ideas without dropping their cell phones–just watch Morgan Spurlock’s multilayer TED talk. I recommend: watch once for fun, then again to figure out just how he made his presentation so engaging, so–um–sticky.
  • Beyond these–for a vivid guidebook to deadly serious idea communication, bolt yourself to your chair for safety, and browse through Tactical Tech’s website.

Whatever you think of their ideas, these are our state of the art in idea-mongering. Without requiring $25 or 252 pages to do it, they all expose Made to Stick for the shallow, logorrheic, unforgivable hash it is.

One star. Because I’m feeling generous.

“Made to Stick”, Chip Heath and Dan Heath, 2007, Random House.

diversion/movie: Avatar (2009)

Woof. Talk about transporting you to a new world. Talk about (even without 3D) the most complex visual canvas ever painted in any medium, rich to hallucination, complete with flying fluorescent friendly jellyfish and Technicolor Pterodactyls. Talk about going beyond Suspension Of Disbelief to: Murdering Disbelief In Cold Blood. And there’s plenty of disbelief to suspend: 6 years of travel to the planet, but no time for advance training? An all-organic world with no scars, no biting insects, or even going to the bathroom? No babies, no old people? But still: there are movies you don’t want to end, there are movies you can’t believe will end, and then there’s the very rare movie you forget will end because you’re utterly in its world.

When Avatar does end, it gives way to some Human wailing some sappy manufactured Earth song designed to herd you from the theater or snap off the TV, like 2 am spotlights to drive you out of a cheap nightclub. But still, I came away disoriented and dazzled as one should be on waking from a daring world more vivid than our own. And hungry. Listen, any movie that can make me forget eating for 7 hours (ok, Avatar runs just short of 3) is impressive for that alone.

There are these New Media notions that Linear Narrative is dead. Avatar just knocked that notion back 20 years. It is straight exposition, the storyteller in confident control, and it works. Hoorah–long live Linear Narrative.

And you, Mr. Cameron who inflicted the execrable Titanic: it’s such a pity that you needed longer to redeem yourself by porting us to Avatar‘s world than it took NASA to land on the Moon, but we hereby give it up. Redeemed yourself you have. In style. Bravo.

Five Stars.

book: “CEO Material”

No doubt D. A. Barton’s newest business book will come into its own again, any year now. But anyone in America’s workplace the past 2-3 years will wince when reading “how to become…absolutely indispensable to your organization.” Oh please. How 2006. I guess she hadn’t heard that the only business lesson since 2007 is that no one is indispensable. The book even has a chapter: “You Develop Others to Take Your Job” which comes across ominously–plenty of companies want you to do just that.

You should probably not read this quotation-sprinkled and occasionally breathless book the way I did, straight through. That only dazes you, as well as distracting from its best material by magnifying by repetition its weirdnesses. I will limit myself to two of many:

  1. numerous CEO quotes that border on the bizarre: “Like water pipes, you’ve got to have people moving through.”  reaction 1: “Ick.” reaction 2: “Broken simile alert!” Exactly what is “Like water pipes”? You‘re like water pipes? Your people are? Um, well yes, you can find CEOs who say such things, but that doesn’t mean a leading author should select it as exemplary.
  2. on getting selected as a leader: “For every 5 formal qualifiers, there are 30 disqualifiers, and they can be almost anything and everything.” Now this scary and disheartening opinion is in the book’s very Introduction, and pardon if I don’t come running. I read this line to two coworkers. Both made faces. One sighed and admitted: retirement suddenly looked a little better.

If you’re working outside the US, this is not probably the book for you. I can well imagine a European comedy film playing off certain CEO Material chapters. Twice the author urges learning another language–a promising if unAmerican admonition–but then she has to pant “…like Scandinavian.” Look, it’s fine to write about cultural needs like combing hair carefully, getting in others’ space, and grabbing others in aggressive handshakes, but not quite so fine to relay by omission that American ways are universal business ways. I guess Ms. Benton missed the “BTW USA not d world LOLZ” tweet.

So, taking Barton’s advice, I’ll close on an upnote. For every 5 formal complaints, there are 30 good things in this book. Many of the quotes are superb reminders, especially ” It is better to read too much than to talk too much” which comes across as useful and sincere (rather than self-serving from a writer who, after all, gets paid only if you read). Other quotes you’ve heard before, or close, but they still bear occasional pep-talk rehearing:

  • If the other person doesn’t understand you, it’s your fault.  [ed: Writers of the world, unite!]
  • Don’t work for stupid people because they’ll bring you down with them.  [ed: or try to]
  • Almost all mistakes are forgivable.
  • The same mistake twice is a different conversation.

I do recommend this book. But again, I don’t recommend it as a straight read-through. Perhaps a chapter at a time, and 1-2 per month, as a sort of recurring pep-talk for yourself, whether you have any interest whatever in being a CEO or not.

Three stars +. Or four stars as consolation if you consider life worthless unless you make CEO.

“CEO Material: How to Be a Leader in Any Organization”, D. A. Benton, 2009, McGraw Hill.

book: “Labyrinths of Reason”

book cover: Labyrinths of ReasonThis 1988 book addresses Reason’s power and limitations and raises a lot of questions, but answers only a few. But it could have given more useful answers-or at least it could have cited more well-known, well-tested approaches–had it not overly focused on all-or-nothing, hard-logic approaches. Most tellingly: I cannot imagine how a prestigious thinker could drone on for 263 pages about reasonable choices, without once mentioning Bayes’ Law.

If you need an approximate litmus test for whether a person really understands reasonable behavior–as opposed to superstitious, random, or groupthink behavior–you could do a lot worse than simply getting his reactions to two ideas: Bayes’ Law and Newcomb’s Paradox.

  • Bayes’ Law diagnoses “What should I believe?”
  • Newcomb’s Paradox probes his answer to “Am I a rational free agent?”

Now, Poundstone’s book very nicely covers Newcomb’s Paradox. And it does cite the real conflict embedded in it, but, look, the choice presented in the paradox is really not as hard as all that: either you take both boxes because by doing so you simply get more money, or you take only one box. But you would only take one box if you believed that either (1) someone you don’t know can read your mind, or (2) your choice actually directs the predictor’s earlier choice. Well, in the universe I inhabit, and that I assume you inhabit too, the first choice is obviously the rational one. Either you believe that what’s in a box is actually in it, or you actually believe in superstition, wishful thinking, mind control, etc–whether or not you think you do. The secret to choosing to open the second box with confidence is the principle of dominance, which Poundstone cites as though it is just one choice in a series of valid choices. It is not. Too bad the cases where dominance applies are so infrequent, but they are not forbidden, and Newcomb’s Paradox is a perfect case for it: the two boxes are right in front of you, and taking the sure money in one box makes you exactly that much richer, no matter what’s in the other box. That box contains what that box contains. It is what it is.

This last sentence is not just a movie line or a cute truism. It is more important for what it warns against–superstition, wishful thinking, etc–as for what it directly recommends–confidence in relying on reality. No being in the physical universe can read my mind and its own, in their entireties, at the same time. Gödel’s Theorem, proven in 1931, perfectly rules that out. Whatever all that peripheral,  unknowable, metaphysical, mumble-jumble, if an action is better in each case of all possible cases–that is, if it dominates–it’s just a better choice. Look, once in a while things are that easy. So calm down. Save your energy for something hard. A dominant strategy, in the few cases where it exists, is a sort of gift. So take it and move on. Somewhere, Bertrand Russell is smiling.

Poundstone’s book fails badly, however, in ignoring Bayes’ Law, instead opting to fool around with dozens of Quixotic paradoxes. Paradoxes are a fine subject, and Newcomb’s is still the deepest of the lot. But this book professes to be about Reason, and paradoxes are not the whole story. Here’s why.

In evaluating your strategies, you usually have to decide what you know or believe, plus how sure you are of those beliefs. You. You have to decide what you believe. Not your parents 10, 20, or 40 years ago, and not your church or synagogue or mosque, however beautiful. Not the National Front, nor La Raza, not your favorite Deity, not South Park. Not even coin flips unless that’s the best you have. Those may be valuable starting points especially early in life. But to be an adult, you are responsible for what you believe. Fortunately, there’s help: Bayes’ Law can (and should) help you sort this out. You start with some Prior beliefs, which are what you might best expect before you have any real evidence. Perhaps this is what you were taught as a child, or perhaps it is an sober admission that without knowing anything about a problem, a coin flip would do. The idea is to keep your Priors as weak and naive as possible, which means simply: don’t pretend you know something you don’t. Then, you add the influence of relevant Evidence, as much you can get. This is what Bayes’ Law covers: Evidence modifies Prior beliefs to yield Posterior beliefs, which are the beliefs you would most sanely adopt right now given all the Evidence and your (weakest possible) Priors. The goal is to get enough Evidence to make whichever Priors you started with…totally irrelevant. That is: with mounting relevant Evidence, two honest people with opposing Prior beliefs will eventually come to similar Posterior beliefs…which is pretty much the history of Science. Whether you call it Bayes’ Law or just sanity, this is the basis of real-world reason–but Poundstone never mentions it.

And this is the problem with a lot of thinking out there. All-or-nothing thinking is too inflexible for this universe, the actual one we’re in. It gets you up too many blind alleys with no way to escape, or change your mind, or reinvent your life. If you find this hard to believe, just read the news. In the aggregate, life rewards neither perfect clarity nor perfect paradox. The universe is closer to backgammon than to chess. You cannot know with clarity how the dice fall next, but so what?–you work the odds, deal with the last move, and prepare yourself for the next ones. Whatever people have told you, there is no Book of Perfect Moves. Sorry. You weren’t born into that universe.

Bayes’ Law will set you free. Free to change your mind without embarrassment–indeed, with glee!–when new Evidence surprises you. Free to operate cautiously on reasonable Priors until you get the Evidence you want.  But not free, never free, to ignore the Evidence and cling to your old Priors, however comfortable, socially accepted, or spiritually urged. Free to refuse to rip each other’s throats out over different Priors, because you are modest enough to know that later Evidence might someday prove one side wrong…and it might be yours. It doesn’t tell you what to believe–indeed the opposite. It gives the most reasonable method for deciding for yourself. And it’s hard to understand a book on Reason that doesn’t give the basis for Reason, in Bayes’ form or any other, rather fooling around with paradoxes in a Quixotic insistence that if we were just smart enough, we could have certainty.

But there is no such beast as absolute certainty. There is only the hunt for it, the struggle to better focus the blurry maps of reality that we carry in our heads.

Oh yes, the book. Four stars.

“Labyrinths of Reason”, William Poundstone, 1988, Anchor Books.

diversion/movie: Iron Man (2008)

I can hear the breathless Hollywood pitch: “Robocop meets 007 meets Terminator III meets True Lies meets Superman“. But terrorists still neither succeed nor surrender, Miss Moneypenny still doesn’t get Bond, and still no one cares. A cookie-cutter, faux-military audio track to bludgeon the American audiences awake, and an assumption that all viewers failed Physics, or should have.

Once Marketing’s time limit draws near, and Daddy Warbucks 2.0 in his outsized Aliens power suit meets with his Focus-Group-validated end, it’s time to put the audience out of its misery with a contrived Empire Strikes Back sequel-hook. After all, there are more eager ticket holders behind the theater ropes, and Netflix wants its DVD back. All Brought To You by Audi™.

Second-order derivative. Rotten.

book: “One Small Step Can Change Your Life: the Kaizen Way”

cover of Kaizen bookMantra: The steps were so small I couldn’t fail.
Translation: Stop scaring yourself so you won’t relapse.
Hint to reader: Rip out the last, dreadful chapter.


Evolutionary, not revolutionary. This fine book insists that when we want to change our lives, we should prefer Evolutionary to Revolutionary, that is, Incremental to Abrupt.

Certainly there’s a place for each. Evolutionary changes is better when trying out new habits (as this book elegantly points out), whereas revolutionary is better limited to strategy and direction, of your life, for example. Even then, you may come to a revolutionary, abrupt decision via small, evolutionary, incremental shifts of outlook.

And this book rightly points out the biggest problem in leaping straightaway into Revolutionary change: it provokes fear, which obstructs your will to make the change you want, gives you excuses to reverse or chicken out. If you want to start smiling at your irritating co-workers now and then, don’t start by inviting them all to your home. Just start with smiling once per week–surely you can do that. Later, try twice per week. Later, once a day. Play with it, have fun with it, even–see what happens if you compliment one of their ideas in a large meeting. If and when the other person responds in a friendly way, the rest will be easier. But the goal is to keep new commitments within a range you can handle, so you don’t risk losing face or backsliding. Start small, concentrate on that, not on doing more later. Anyone who’s made friends with a strange dog knows about incremental improvement.

I’ve often taken a revolutionary “Just Do It” approach when I thought it might work. The faster rate of improvement is not nothing, if you can get it. But still, this book’s start small & work up “kaizen” approach brings two weighty advantages:

  1. You won’t “pull something”–such as literally pulling a muscle, if exercise is your goal. You won’t advance so fast as to scare the other person, if a better or closer relationship is the goal.
  2. It gives you a better vantage toward next steps. This is really not obvious to the beginner. Say you’re trying to get from your present state we’ll label “A” (e.g., couch potato), to some desired “G” (e.g., easily running a mile). Now, ye olde Revolutionary approach is: Just Do “G”: run the mile, you wimp. Bad idea. Think hospital, pain, recovery. Not what you’re aiming for, and you probably won’t try a second time. Not good. Instead, consider starting with some modest step “B” (e.g., treadmill for 5 minutes), see how it goes. When that’s done, advance from there. So far so good. Suppose the “C” level presents several possibilities, say, C1 (e.g., treadmill 30 minutes), C2 (leg strength training), and C3 (a mile on a bicycle). Which do you do? Well, the non-obvious advantage I want to point out is that you don’t have to choose which “C” when you’re still at step “A”: instead, see how “B” goes before you choose between C1, C2, or C3. Heck, you’re free to decide on some admixture of Cs. Or you might sense that C came too fast and drop back to B for a while. That’s OK. And the same at steps C, D, E, and F. The point is that you need never over-commit, which only triggers the destructive “see, I can’t do it” mantra. Keep moving forward, adjust as you go.

Stick with this. Small changes will get you there more often than big leaps. It’s true you can’t cross a canyon in two jumps, but if there’s a bridge you should cross in a hundred steps rather than risk a single leap.

Near-tragically, in the book’s very last 4-page chapter, it goes chock-full of Dumb. Leading with (p. 173) “kaizen…requires faith”. (Faith in what is unspecified.) The author makes completely unnecessary ad hominem pleas, which is self-contradictory, even: why should the reader just take the word of an author he doesn’t know? Because of his credentials?–but credentials are evidence, not faith. And then what were the preceding 172 pages about–if they weren’t persuasive, what could the author’s “Because I said so” possibly add?

The author’s logical stumble is disappointing, especially given that he could have made two stronger, evidence-based appeals:

  1. Any reader can recognize kaizen examples from normal life. Babies crawl before they walk before they run. New athletes start with lighter gym weights before heavy, short runs before marathons. You date before you marry. You might raise a pet before raising a human. Small talk with a new acquaintance before serious talk. “Shoot first, ask questions later” gets you nowhere. To call such evidence faith means that every evidence might really be faith. “Yeah,” as they would say on West Wing, “except…no.”
  2. A second reason it’s silly to claim kaizen is doomed without faith: the reader can figure out for himself the awfulness of alternatives. If you know that you must cut back on your eating, and you know that a Big Fat New Year’s Resolution will fail, then your choices are logically few: (1) rehab/imprisonment (removing opportunity), (2) painful death, or (3) incremental steps (kaizen). I vote for (3). So would most readers.

With his flippant and gratuitous ending, the author damages his thoughtful story, as though Shakespeare closed Othello with a whooping can-can dance.

The last chapter has baffling factual errors, too, for example (p. 174): “…on the eve of America’s entry into World War II…manufacturing wasn’t a broken industry.” Is he kidding us? Not only did US manufacturing stink out loud just then, but in the following war years, any kaizen contributions were dwarfed by: women entering the workforce, diversion of materials from domestic consumption to manufacturing, issuance of war bonds for cheap funding…and this little thing called a war effort, a fight for survival.

For its cataclysmally rancid last chapter, this otherwise fine book forfeits a star. Now, if you’ll be so kind as to excuse me, I’ll visit the gym for one push-up.

Three stars. Could have been four. Pity.

“One Small Step Can Change Your Life: the Kaizen Way”, Robert Maurer, 2004, Workman Publishing.

http://bibliosaurus.org/

book: “Integrated Enterprise Excellence, the Basics, Volume 1”

cover of Breyfogle bookOh, dear. What a mess we have here.

I really wanted to like this book. I really wanted to understand how we should all be tying together Lean’s waste-suppression, Six-Sigma’s variation suppression, and Scorecard’s confusion suppression. Mr. Breyfogle seems to have some ideas, and maybe good ones, but they’re hidden–I just could not extract them from this book and whatever dialect it’s written in: Clichéic, Dufferish, IEE-speak.

What’s part golfcart-cult, part atrociously bad novel, but all self-advertisement? This book, a thin and expensive neon billboard for the author’s pet theories. If it was conceived as an updating and condensation of Eliyahu Goldratt’s The Goal (1984), it’s has gone rather awry.

A few glints of clear insight do emerge, as Table 7.1 on page 60, which alone is so useful and concise I may sticky-note it to my office monitor. It’s a glimmer of hope and ensures I’ll try one more of Breyfogle’s books.

But this one book does have problems. Lots of problems.
A few examples:

You notice is how small the book is, and you hope: maybe it’s just Lean. Maybe all waste/muda has been removed so that the book’s wisdom is just highly concentrated, as after all would befit a book on systems efficiency. No–no such luck. Even a small jungle is still a jungle, and the reader must hack his way through the tangle.

Clearly the story is structured in parallel threads, one per golfer & industry category, intended to be allegorical. But the book is executed by merely slopping one paragraph on top of the last in an outright mess. Let me pursue my own allegory. Say you ordered a hot dog with the works, but what you got instead was a tiny plate onto which were dumped random bun fragments, weiner bits some cooked and some raw, then mustard and heaven knows what other goos all over it. You take the mess, shrug, and assemble it yourself, only then discovering that your relish was served on the plate’s bottom, gluing your fingers together. And the vendor won’t give you napkins to clean it up—you must pay for the next in a series. Sure, you’ll figure it out and put your meal together, but you paid $28 (25 cents per small page), and now you start to worry if what you’ve bought is even wholesome to consume.

You bite and eat anyway, but then you have to pick wads of advertisements out of the textual flow, as though the deli had mashed in hundreds of tiny paper adverts, now lodged between your teeth. The self-promotion is absolutely relentless. Consider this advice from one casual golfing friend to another: “You should be able to get things going a lot quicker using the resources of an organization outside your company. It is important to partner up with a provider that fits well with your company. This is not the right time to save money by selecting someone who is local or using a university course.” (1) Guess what business Mr. Breyfogle is in. (2) Guess who his training consultancy’s main competitors are. (3) I’m not a golfer, but is this the way people normally chat on Hole 16? Or is it just a way to hide the author’s 80-foot billboard over a sand trap?

The book’s style is equally off-putting. Goldratt’s The Goal (1984), the reference instructional business novel, was clunky enough and obvious, but The Goal undeniably worked for millions of readers because it centered on minimally believable business characters discussing real business needs and conflicts inside credible business environments. Little suspension of belief was asked. Now we don’t expect Breyfogle to write another Middlemarch, but neither should we expect (page 68): “Then, we could proactively drill down and create P-DMAIC projects that could really impact the bottom line.” Know that you’ll be imbibing 120 pages of such blather, with a chaser of mash-up Glossary (golf slang + author’s take on current quality terminology). Take this book, please.

Even the grammar is torture, as in: “Monthly status meetings now had metric report-outs that mean something.” Tense Alert!–were we in the present, or are we in the past? There’s no relief: wordboarding of the hapless reader continues in the very next sentence: “He found in the past they had been wasting much time fighting phantom issues.” Forsooth, I have much surprise that Ghostbusters even will have been entering into it!

I was surprised to read (page 54): ” Theory of Constraints is part of the E-DMAIC analyze phase.” This is pretty far from my novice understanding. Indeed, Goldratt, who founded Theory of Constraints, was very blunt in his book The Goal on one point: you must define your goal before you try to apply TOC, or any other prescriptive system. It’s the book’s title, for crying out loud. So how can it be a subset of one phase of one application of Six Sigma’s DMAIC process? Hard to understand how Breyfogle could mangle this so completely.

Maybe I have an unfair advantage as measurements fanatic, but I even found errors in this book’s approach to Design of Experiments. The Xerox copier story on page 97 is intended to prove that, not only must you choose your independent variables wisely, you must also consider interactions between independent variables. And, yes, so you must. But the example’s independent variables were given as temperature and (relative) humidity, and these of course interact since humidity is computed using temperature. The proper independent variables are temperature and either dew point (or water activity). And even if your instrument at hand directly measures relative humidity, you should transform humidity before analyzing the data. You can worry a lot less about interactions between variables if you simply transform them to proper, independent variables in the first place! In the Xerox example, all the effect ends up in dew point alone–no interactions, no complex math, and a lot easier to understand and explain.

Ultimately I found the book’s arguments too vague and too diluted by noise (cutesy golf cleverness and cardboard characters) to trust. I’m too confused about why this book was written, unless it was to trick us into laying out $28 merely to be advertised to, like some pop movie obliterated by Product Placement On Meth. Better just to read The Goal, four times as long but still ten times as valuable, with half the psychic hangover.

Two stars. Plus or minus six sigma.

“Integrated Enterprise Excellence, Volume 1, the Basics: Golfing Buddies Go Beyond Lean Six Sigma and the Balanced Scorecard”, Forrest W. Breyfogle III, 2008, Bridgeway Books.

book: “Understanding, Leveraging, & Maximizing LinkedIn”

cover of bookLinkedIn has become the elaborate online business card for most corporate knowledge workers I know (lab scientists curiously excepted). As handhelds get held more in more hands, we’ll find ourselves checking LinkedIn profiles of: recruiters, job candidates, hiring managers and their HR reps, clients, salespeople, first dates, and that dubious guy in the next airplane seat; and we’ll be checking from: the backs of cabs, interview waiting areas, restaurant rest rooms, and in line for latte. By sometime in 2011, any corporate knowledge worker missing a LinkedIn profile will be considered missing from reality.

Any software system of medium to high complexity still requires a User’s Manual to get all the benefits. Now, before whinging that manuals are too geeky: simply compare the deep technology behind LinkedIn–including servers, security and encryption, jQuery, etc–to the technology behind your old paper business cards. Without anyone’s quite announcing it, your career competitiveness now depends on runaway technologies that you will not understand, but that nonetheless you are obligated to exploit and control. We’re all geeks now, honey.

So “Where’s the manual for LinkedIn? “Understanding, Leveraging & Maximizing LinkedIn” is a well-regarded contender, as well it should be. Its advice benefited my own profile, and the book is up-to-the-year (2010), important since social media content is bird-cage liner. I’m also wary of book titles containing a trademark symbol–before a year is out copies will pile high in Half-Price Books. We can laugh that books have become nearly phantoms, but careful you don’t laugh too loudly: so have jobs.

The name Windmill Networking™ arises from the author’s embarrassingly inept, inapt metaphor for employees: row upon row of them each flailing in the wind while giving away their energy, left out in the weather, expected to work 24 hours a day without pay, and prevented from fleeing or even leaning on something by anchoring their feet in concrete. While we’ve all had jobs like that, it’s more relevant here that the Windmill Networking™ process amounts to a limited and more pragmatic variant of LION’s (LinkedIn Open Network) bizarre cult of connection communism. The author does advocate Windmill’s “connect first, think later” plan, he does not insist on it, and even gives sound advice on how to tune your LinkedIn habits to your degree of exhibitionism. I like that. The book may well persuade you to try several things your possibly didn’t even know about. It is not an expensive book, and if it gives you one good hint, that might pay for itself in sparing you aggravation, if not actually in a new job.

For me the most useful chapters were on Introductions, Groups, Applications, and Answers. I’m especially intrigued by Answers and may find myself inspired to participate–thanks to this book. There may be a real future in LinkedIn’s Applications, but the few available so far are toys. Of course, they may improve, and it so it’s useful to have them called out. I can disclose that this very blog came to be partly because Amazon’s Book List Application on LinkedIn proved inadequate. This book pointed me in that direction.

The book could be half its current length without loss. But in its favor, the subjects are crisply divided, so I knew at a glance which chapters to skip. If you know what you want from LinkedIn in the first place, your time will be especially well invested.

A LinkedIn manual is truly needed, and you could do far worse than follow this book’s advice.

Three stars.

“The Windmill Networking™ Approach to Understanding, Leveraging, & Maximizing LinkedIn”, Neal Schaffer, 2009, Booksurge [publishers].

book: “The First 90 Days”

cover of bookWe launch Career Bibliophile with an infuriatingly dense and extremely helpful Little Big Book of wonders: The First 90 Days by Michael Watkins, a book for readers starting in a new position of direct and highly responsible leadership. The book will be most useful for those in very high positions, say vice president or project portfolio manager or above, or for anyone taking on a new and highly unfamiliar leadership position at any level.

As a side note, one unexpected target reader came to mind: new assistant professors at research universities, who must suddenly handle budgets, projects like setting up labs, managing graduate students, collaborating on research (if they’re smart); and presenting difficult (only recently learned) material to large, hostile classes–all of this at once, and typically absent any management mentoring whatever. As a new professor, I would have killed to have this book.

This is one of very few business books (or books of any kind) whose every page carries a challenge to the reader to do the right thing. It’s a slow read, even though only 230 smallish pages, but not because of its style. No, you don’t get off that easily. The style is appropriate to the dense content, and I can assure you that it is extraordinarily well edited, lean as can be. Every page feeds you content you must think about, sometimes deeply. And almost every page shows you how profitably to take time to plan how you’re going to spend those precious, exhilarating, and terrifying first 3+ months of a new and unfamiliar leadership position.

As for me, “a new and unfamiliar leadership position” seems in my near future, one happy way or another. The First 90 Days will be my Owner’s Manual for the new job and its demands, before my eyes by day, under my pillow by night.

If you actually do what this book demands–and by book’s end I was persuaded that you must–then it would be very hard to fail badly. Read, then Do, and with confidence. Prescriptive books can’t offer more than that.

Definitely five stars.

“The First 90 Days: Critical Success Strategies for New Leaders at All Levels”, Michael Watkins, 2003, Harvard Business School Press.

welcome

This blog is a result of my reading mania.

Which mania erupted all at once, long ago, from a Headmaster’s thunderclap of a taunt: Behold, Eric the Unread. The Headmaster has passed, but not the taunt, and since that day there’s been nothing for it but to overcompensate. And here we are.

Why a blog? Well, the test Amazon Book List on my LinkedIn page began short enough and handsome but grew some.

Whereas in this blog I can specify what I’ve read, how it strikes me, and my best guess on whether you should bother, too. All in a precise, comprehensive, and advert-free way. Let’s give it a try.