Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Movie Review: 非诚勿扰

非诚勿扰 2 so caught my attention that I checked the prequel from the library. Sequels are rarely better than the original, so if I liked the second movie, 非诚勿扰 should have been even more impressive, right?

The opening sequence was indeed funny, but not in the way the sequel was. Then the initial half of the movie degenerates into a sequence of "in search of the right woman" dating scenes. While these are entertaining enough, and even cleverly written (there's one scene where a friend introduces our lead actor to a recently widowed woman that just had us giggling), at this point we're introduced to the lead actress.

I was quite puzzled as to why I didn't like the movie as much, but I think I know why now. The protagonist is extremely smart and observant: he sees what's wrong with his leading lady right away, and walks out on her multiple times. Then we are led to believe that he's willing to take a trip to Hokkaido, treats her cruelly, and then becomes devoted to her? Nothing adds up. Ok, human beings don't always add up, but as someone once said, the difference between real life and fiction is that I expect some consistency from fiction. One theory could be that the sequel had a larger budget than this movie, and hence the sight-jokes could be better implemented. Thinking over the script though, I don't see how a bigger budget would have made this movie better.

Is the movie worth watching? Yes. It's still better than expected for a romantic comedy. But the sequel was definitely much more impressive in terms of writing. The photography is nice, but it's quite clear that the director did not make full use of Hokkaido's gorgeous scenery, which properly belonged to the characters. It's just that if I had watched this movie first I probably would have waited to watch 非诚勿扰 2 on DVD rather than seeing it in the theater, and that would have been a loss. Nevertheless, recommended.
[Note: I watched this movie with only Chinese subtitles turned on, so I can't speak to the quality of the English subtitles. One of the coolest things about the movie is that it makes no compromises about languages. The Japanese people speak Japanese, the Chinese people speak Chinese, and the one non-Asian with speaking parts speaks in both English and Japanese. Hence turning on subtitles is useful even if you are fluent with Mandarin.]

Review: Cryoburn

Cryoburn (The Vorkosigan Saga) is Lois Bujold's latest foray into the Vorkosigan saga, her hyper-kinetic space opera hero. Unfortunately, it was not her best work.

Scarlet wrote a thorough review of this book a while back, so I'll outsource most of the criticism to her. The book didn't grab me plot-wise or emotionally, and we see precious little character development, either of Miles or any of the supporting characters. We don't even get the little thrill that we should get when Miles solves a puzzle. Even the setbacks were too easily resolved. Unlike other novels, where Miles gets put through the wringer, he solves all the problems far too easily.

Unlike Scarlet, I didn't see the ending coming, but it wasn't much of an emotional punch. Not recommended. Bujold is a brilliant writer, and you should start elsewhere in the series for really good reading.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Movie Review: 非诚勿扰 2

I'm really skeptical of romantic comedies. They tend towards cliches, and when I see the "2" which means it's a sequel I'm doubly skeptical. Yet the movie theater I was in at 1:00pm had nearly every chair filled on Christmas Day! Granted, Cupertino has a large Chinese population, and it was a rainy day, but that drew my attention.

I'll try not to spoil the movie, but if you are the type who's easily spoiled, don't read any further.

The opening sequence is a surprise: a divorce ceremony, complete with all the pomp and grandeur devoted to wedding ceremonies in other romantic comedies. Then the next sequence is a little confusing to those who did not watch the prequel, despite the opening "catchup" exposition. The meandering plot features not very much by way of surprises, or even character development, but smack in the middle is another great sequence featuring a wake for someone who's not dead (it is a fantasy of mine --- why waste all the good things you'd say about someone for only after they're gone?). The script's dialogue is fast paced and fun, but I'm not sure how the English subtitles were translated: I was too busy with the dialogue and scenes to pay attention to the subtitles. There's definitely a healthy amount of cynicism and snide remarks in the movie, which earned it my respect despite the genre.

All in all, I guess I'll have to find the prequel and see if it's just as entertaining. Recommended, though if you were to wait for it to come out on DVD, there's nothing that requires watching it on a big screen. In fact, in some scenes the cinematography and photography seemed to be overly grainy, which is a surprise in this day and age.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Lenovo Customer Service Rocks

My X201 developed a sticky key. By itself, it wasn't too bad, but it was annoying. Since it was under warranty, I decided to give Lenovo a call yesterday. I was given a choice: send the laptop back, or they'd send me a replacement keyboard. I opted for the latter after being told that all it took was unscrewing 4 screws on the bottom of the machine.

I was amazed when I opened the front door this morning to find the keyboard already waiting for me: they had shipped it next day air! 15 minutes later I have a laptop with a new keyboard and no stuck keys. The box came with a return tag so I could return the old keyboard at no charge. Amazing.

Two thumbs up for customer service. There's no question that my next laptop will also be a Thinkpad.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Review: Motorola Power Adapter Micro USB Rapid Charger

My Motorola Droid is a power hungry beast. Despite plugging it into my car with a micro-USB charger, the battery would not stop draining, leading me to carry a spare battery all the time, especially when planning to use the phone to provide turn by turn navigation. I thought this was the phone's fault, and just lived with the inconvenience. Then I learned that the phone drew 750mAh while navigating. I looked at my current charger and saw that it was outputting 500mAh. When I saw the Motorola Vehicle Power Adapter MicroUSB Rapid Rate Charger on sale for $3, I jumped on it. This charger puts out 950mAh, which would be plenty even for iPad users. Trying it for the first time a couple of days ago, I finally saw the phone actually charge while driving!

Note that this charger will not solve the other problem with charging the Droid: if it gets too hot, the charging circuitry shuts off to keep the battery from over-heating and exploding, so on long drives in the summer, you probably still have to carry a spare battery. But for now, I'm pretty happy with this charger. Recommended.

Review: The Facebook Effect

Despite the huge amount of hype surrounding Facebook, I still get occasional questions from engineers asking me if I think Facebook would be successful. Perhaps if they had read David Kirkpatrick's The Facebook Effect, they would already have anticipated my answer: "Facebook is already successful, and whatever happens next, that success will not go away."

The book starts with a story of how political organizers have used Facebook to effect a change in the world. I think that's the very definition of success for any kind of startup: the product it has created has changed the world. Netscape, for instance, didn't make the kind of money Google and Facebook ever made, but it also changed the world, and the founders at Netscape have parleyed that success into important roles, including one described in this book.

The Facebook origin story has been documented in lots of places, including The Social Network. Kirkpatrick goes beyond that, however, and covers several other social networks, including Friendster, ConnectU, and of course Orkut and its predecessors. He even has a plausible theory as to why Facebook succeeded over all the others, though of course as a non-engineer he discounts the importance of the design and engineering efforts in letting Facebook scale beyond many of those competitors. I knew Facebook had a solid engineering team when they hired Jeff Rothschild, and several other folks that I had worked with in previous startups, but the numbers I had heard in 2007 were nothing short of astounding: Facebook was serving at that time 5 times Google's daily page views with 3% of Google's machine infrastructure. That's 5 times all of Google properties, not just search. You can dismiss Facebook's problem as being easier than search (and I will dispute that: search serving can be treated as being fundamentally stateless, while Facebook has a lot of state), but just the sheer volume and efficiency is impressive.

All this history is there. The investments, the hiring and firing of various insiders (though obviously, some of the most juicy gossip can only be heard from insiders), but of interest to most people will be page 272-273, where various financial numbers are disclosed about Facebook's business. They add up to some very impressive numbers, and the entire chapter puts paid to many myths and answers questions about how Facebook makes money. I'll admit to being surprised at some of the answers myself! I'm starting to think that despite having a track record of advising people to take a "smaller" package at Facebook over a "larger" package at Google, I might still have under-estimated how much potential is still to be unlocked over at Facebook (meaning that yes, earlier this year when I bought some Facebook stock at $7 a share I should have bought more).

The book does cover many of the fracas between privacy advocates and Facebook's founding and management team. It should come as no surprise that I side with Facebook on this: given how most people happily sell their purchasing habits to their local grocery store for $0.50 discounts on milk and other items, I have yet to see behavior which reflects that people actually believe in privacy about information they put online. If you don't want it spread around, it doesn't belong online.

All in all, I should have bought this book and read it earlier this year, rather than waiting in line at the hold queue at the library. Recommended.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Review: Fables #14 - Witches

Fables #13 was a disappointment. Fables Vol. 14: Witches, however, has started a brand new story arc, with a new villain, some very funny moments, and a light-humored interlude. Willingham is back on form! Many characters have changed and evolved, and we get to see aspects of some of the old witches in the stories that we did not know about before. Very well done.

One thing I do not like is that the Fables now seem to have more politicking around than they did previously. That's only to be expected, since they've already had one overwhelming success against the adversary, but you'd think that having Fabletown demolished would knock some sense into the characters. I'm also sad that my favorite characters don't seem to be playing a role in this new story arc.

Nevertheless, I am very happy to put Fables #14 back onto the recommended list.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Review: The Golden Gate

The Golden Gate is a novel in verse. That means each paragraph is written in the form of a sonnet, including the author's bio and the introduction. This is a pretty impressive feat by itself, though there are times when you could sense that the poet would choose to twist the characters or places around to fit the rhyme. For instance:
Not speaking, with a finger tracing
The unseen lines from star to star.
Liz turns. They kiss. They kiss, they are
Caught in a panic of embracing.
They cannot hold each other tight
Enough against the chill of night.
If you read this out loud, it doesn't work as verse: the line breaks and sentence structure works against the rhyme and rhythm. The entire book is full of such false poetry, which fail to work when read out loud. If you want brilliant writing, The Things They Carried is full of examples of how well-written prose outperforms workaday poetry, especially when compared against The Golden Gate, despite the harsh and unpleasant nature of Tim O'Brien's stories.

Unfortunately, neither the characters nor the plot rescues the novel. Ultimately, I feel that The Golden Gate is a lot like El Mariachi: the question isn't whether El Mariachi was a great movie, it's that a watchable $7000 movie could even be made at all! Similarly, I feel like The Golden Gate is an extreme test of whether a modern audience can tolerate poetry long enough to tell a story. The story is cliche and quite uninteresting, but that it can be done at all is impressive.

The only saving grace of the book is that even the author could not sustain the writing of such doggerel --- for poetry, it's a relatively quick read, and fortunately, just as easily forgettable. Not recommended.

Independent Cycle Touring, Final Proof approved!

After the fiasco last week with the pages being completely off and the interior being completely screwed up, my heart was in my mouth when I saw that the latest proof had arrived. To my delight, I could find nothing wrong with the proof, so now the first print run of Independent Cycle Touring has been ordered. Given the vagaries of shipping and the Christmas rush at Amazon, I have no idea when I will get the books ready for shipping. However, if you order the paperback copy now, you'll get an electronic copy right away for reading! Once the physical books show up, there will be an extra charge for both the paperback and electronic copy.

With this approval it is now finally safe for me to register the book with the copyright office (the copyright office wants two copies of the book shipped to them within 30 days of registration). Historically it takes about 4-5 months to get a copyright certificate. It also costs about $35 in addition to the two copies of the book.

Once again, I'd like to thank everyone who has supported the book!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

A Taxonomy of Cameras

For whatever reason, people always ask me for camera recommendations, as though I have enough time to research and integrate all the cameras in the world and select them. The truth is, I am not a gadget freak, and my equipment selection is largely a result of legacy lock-in: I have a large collection of Canon lenses, for instance, which means that I'm not buying into any other SLR system any time soon.

I've said this hundreds of times, and I'll say it one more time. Before spending money on equipment, spend a little bit of time (and money) on education. Get a copy of John Shaw's Nature Photography Field Guide.

All cameras that I am about to recommend have RAW mode capability. What this means is that the camera is capable of capturing all the data picked up by the sensor and dumping it into storage. This is like shooting a color negative: a lot of information is captured, more than can be shown on a computer screen, so you'll need software to process the output from the digital sensor into something that can be shown on screen. I use Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 3, which is designed for a photographer's workflow. I cannot recommend free software such as Picasa or iPhoto. Picasa's workflow was designed around JPG, and bogs down tremendously on RAW files. iPhoto has scalability problems. Neither have the tools that Lightroom has for rescuing badly over-exposed photos, adding in ND Grad filters after the fact, or a reasonable tagging/captioning system. The software pipeline determines the final quality of the image, and is responsible for your ability to shoot whatever you want in various different lighting conditions without having to carry a bunch of different filters with you, so it's important not to skimp on this.

Point and Shoots

Canon PowerShot S95 10 MP Digital Camera with 3.8x Wide Angle Optical Image Stabilized Zoom and 3.0-Inch inch LCD

Everyone knows what a point and shoot camera is. My currently recommended point and shoot for serious photography is the Canon PowerShot S95. The important thing that separates this camera from its competitors is the user interface. Rather than clumsy buttons that have to be pushed/held/pushed, the S95 has 2 dials that let you adjust aperture and control for exposure compensation at the same time. In tricky situations where you want manual exposure controls this is the camera to beat. As a pocket sized camera it's easily carried wherever I go, and now that everyone else has switched to phone cameras, photos from the S95 look nothing short of outstanding. You can read my full blown review of the S90, which was the S95's predecessor.

Interchangeable Lens Rangefinder

Sony Alpha NEX NEX5A/B Digital Camera with Interchangeable Lens (Black)

The big limitation of a point and shoot is sensor size. Sensor size matters a lot. The optics and the physics involved is such that the larger sensors always outperform the smaller ones. If you size up the sensor in a point and shoot, however, you have to size up the lens, and so the whole camera becomes bigger. To get the most out of the improved sensor, however, you should stick a better lens in front of it. Since the physics of lenses is such that you cannot design a one-size-fits-all lens that performs worth a damn, it makes sense to build an interchangeable lens mount so you can put different lenses on the camera depending on what you want to shoot. (For you disappointed SLR owners, yes, that means the 18-200mm lens you've slapped onto your body is under-performing the cheap $300 24-85/3.5-4.5 lens I bought 10 years ago and sold to another googler for $150)

The prototypical camera for this class of cameras is the Olympus PEN E-PL1. The Micro Four-Thirds standard is supported by Olympus and Panasonic so you can buy interchangeable lenses from either manufacturer for this standard and it will work. You can see that the PEN is about the same size as the Canon G12, but will outperform it in all conditions by a substantial margin because of the larger sensor size and better lens. For the price difference it is a no brainer to go with the Micro Four Thirds cameras. Sony also makes the Sony Alpha NEX NEX5A/B Digital Camera which is of the same class. I've never so much as touched one but Pengtoh raves about it.

Digital SLRs

Canon EOS 5D Mark II 21.1MP Full Frame CMOS Digital SLR Camera with EF 24-105mm f/4 L IS USM Lens

An SLR is a Single-Lens-Reflex camera. The "reflex" refers to the mirror that sits in the optical path, reflecting light coming in from the lens into the penta-prism which then gives you an upright view through a view-finder. When you press the shutter release, the mirror flips up (the reflex action) and the optical path switches to exposing the sensor to the incoming input. The "single" part is in contrast to Twin-Lens-Reflex cameras, which are an obsolete design that nobody really cares about any more. Why is the mirror important? The previous two classes of cameras do not have a purely optical path for you to view the image before shooting. That means that you are generally restricted to viewing the image on a relatively low-resolution LCD screen. That does two things. First, in bright light the screen becomes useless and you are now effectively shooting blind. That's acceptable if you don't care about the results, but the whole point of carrying anything but a cheapo point and shoot is that you do care about the results, and the viewfinder/mirror optical path solves that problem. Secondly, the viewfinder, by presenting a high resolution image (better than 1080p!) lets you do precise filter placement so you can see exactly what the filter does.

For instance, when shooting a rainbow, what you want to do is to use a polarizer so that you can eliminate the specular reflections from it. This makes the rainbow appear stronger and is far closer to what your eyes see than an unfiltered image:
From 2010 Canadian Rockies Fall Colors

You can try applying a filter to an interchangeable rangefinder camera, but you will find it difficult to judge the results on the screen. Point and shoots don't even take filters without a lot of work.

For seriously tricky light when ND grad filters are a necessity, nothing short of an SLR would be useful. Precise placement of the ND grad filter can only be accomplished with the lens stopped down to shooting aperture, and an optical path with which to see the image. That's why I don't own an interchangeable rangefinder camera: there's no situation which a rangefinder works where a point and shoot wouldn't do an equivalent job.

Note that DSLRs come in 2 classes: full frame sensor cameras and crop sensor cameras. The full frame sensor cameras use a sensor the size of a traditional 35mm film. The crop sensor cameras use a sensor that's about half the size. Since size matters as far as image quality is concerned, my approach was to wait until full frame sensor cameras reached sufficient quality for me to switch from film to digital. That happened in December 2008 when the Canon EOS 5D Mark II was released. I personally can't be bothered to carry an SLR that's anything short of full frame (after all, why carry a full 35mm lens and use only half of it?!!), but if you're not as fanatical about image quality as I am, the crop sensor cameras can be a good choice.

Conclusion

There are other types of cameras not covered above. View cameras, for instance, are a classic landscape photographer's tool. But very few people are willing to carry such cameras, and as someone who enjoys traveling fast and light, even the DSLRs are sometimes too cumbersome.

The sad thing about all this is that most people have gone to crappy phone cameras, none of which will capture in RAW mode, or even produce sharp pictures because the unprotected lenses are usually smudged with fingerprints and the auto-focus mechanisms suck. The nice thing though, is if you actually pay attention, learn a little bit about photography, and even carry the cheapest camera in this article, then you stand a good chance of producing photos that will wow your audience who have been trained to expect crap pictures.

Regardless, you should pick the camera to suit your purpose. If all you do is shoot baby pictures, get a point and shoot or an interchangeable lens rangefinder. If you want to play tripod artist in the dying light of the day and are capable of achieving technical mastery over your equipment, then a digital SLR will let you express your creativity and vision without placing limitations on what you can or cannot do.
From 2010 Canadian Rockies Fall Colors

For more information, see Philip Greenspun's on-line textbook on Photography

Monday, December 13, 2010

2011 Book Reviews

Index Page for Books read 2011


The Books of the Year for 2011 have been selected
Fiction

Review: Surface Detail

The last two Iain Banks books I read, Whit and Transition were merely OK. But Surface Detail is a Culture novel, so like a GOU hell bent on destruction, this fat novel swept all my other reading aside for several days while I enjoyed re-entering Iain Banks' utopia.

Most fictional utopias are anything but, but Banks' utopia is genuine. I would really enjoy living in it. Furthermore, Banks' utopia is idealistic: the goals it espouses would generally be ones I would agree with. You would think that with 8 novels already set in this universe, Banks would be running out of ideas, but each novel manages to work in a new concept. This time, the focus is on virtual reality and the idea of downloading consciousness into it. Banks uses this concept to play out how traditional western religions would make use of it and effectively argue how morally indefensible such uses of virtual reality is.

The plot has multiple strands, some more important than others, all eventually converging at the end in a big bang. Some of the strands were deliberate misdirection, fizzling out without actually impacting the main story-line. As usual with Culture novels, the most interesting characters are the machines: the ships' Minds, and the interaction between them effectively run the plot and the story, leaving the human characters effectively as puppets. It takes a talented writer to make all this work without leaving the reader feeling cheated, but fortunately Banks has it in spades and deploys all of it here.

All in all, this is a great book to start the 2011 reviews with. If every book I read in the coming year is as much fun as this, I'd be very happy. Recommended!

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Berkeley Hills Redux



After the fiasco from 2 weeks ago, I've been raring for a re-match of the Berkeley Hills ride. Mike Samuel wanted to show me his new tandem, so we negotiated for a meeting at Rockridge today. Well, Mike waited until the night before to put together his S&S coupled tandem, which resulted in a complete fiasco to the point where he could not show up.

The folks who did show up: Greg Merritt, Yoyo Zhou, Tracy Ng, and Matt Vera. Eva Silverstein carpooled with me up to Rockridge BART. It was overcast with very low fog when I left my house in Sunnyvale, but by the time we got to Rockridge it looked like it was going to lift. Nevertheless, by the time we started riding it was still foggy and there was none of the brilliant views we got two weeks ago.
From Berkeley Hills

Tracy and Matt had showed up expecting an easy ride, but with the tandem missing and Greg present, the pace went up several notches! We hammered up to the intersection with tunnel road, waited a few minutes for Tracy and Matt, then hammered up Tunnel road, and waited some more, and then took off on Grizzly Peak Blvd, where we finally got some sunshine!
From Berkeley Hills

Unfortunately, the fog returned once we descended into Tilden Park, and Inspiration Point provided no inspiration for us, being completely fogged in as well.
From Berkeley Hills

Greg had to leave at this point, and Tracy looked like she had been run a little ragged, so I provided directions to the Lafayette BART station, and the group was now down to Yoyo, Eva, and I. We climbed the 3 bears in overcast conditions, and Eva got her first on-the-road flat tire. The fix didn't take long, but in the process we discovered that the cone springs on her quick release had been reversed. No wonder the wheel wouldn't go in like it was supposed to!

By the time we climbed pig farm hill the sun had slowly started to come out. Reliez Valley Road was a fun descent as usual, and the rollers to get to Reliez Station Road was just as fun. Entering the bike path, however, we were greeted by a full dose of sunshine. I had never seen the bike path this pretty: leaves were strewn all around, and our tires made a wonderful crackle sound as we rode through them. The afternoon light lit up the yellow leaves all around us, and the earlier fog seemed to have depleted the bike path of other users, allowing us to enjoy it almost all to ourselves. I was almost sorry to leave the bike path for Moraga Commons, hungry as I was.

After lunch, we proceeded up Pinehurst, a beautiful road surrounded by redwoods, and still wet from the morning fog as it would not see sun all day. When we got to Skyline we were impressed by how pretty it now was. We could see all the way across the bay, and see San Francisco, the Golden Gate, and the Bay all under a marine layer that was white. It was stunning. We stopped for several pictures but the images do not do the reality justice:
From Berkeley Hills

We got down Tunnel road for more pretty views and got back to the car around 4:15pm. What an amazing ride. I've now banished the ghost of all the failures to make it up to Berkeley for a ride this year!

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

A Setback

What I hoped would be the final proof of Independent Cycle Touring arrived. Unfortunately, it looks like a layout error early on in the book caused all the pages to be flipped left/right. This is of course unacceptable, so I've forced InDesign to not allow pages to float, and reset the book so the right thing happens. I'm ordering a new proof as soon as the approval process is done.

If you've pre-ordered the print edition of the book, well, there's good reason I gave all preorders access to the PDF version of the book first!

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Books of the Year 2010

I've historically posted my books of the year post after the year was over, but this misses the Christmas shopping season, so this year, I'll provide my books of the year recommendations now, and start the 2011 book list from the next book I review.

All in all, this has been a great year for reading. I got in about 57 books (58 if you include the below-mentioned book of the year), which is a bit more than a book a week. This is on par with the previous year despite my not having a full-time job. But keep in mind that I also wrote a book or two this year, and there were some times when I was just burned out on reading or writing. I'll also note that I don't review magazines or periodicals that I read.

I'll cheat for the overall book of the year and point folks to Hyman Minsky's Stabilizing an Unstable Economy. Due to the timing of last year's "Book of the Year" recommendations, it just missed the cut, so I need to name it again. If you don't understand the term "Minsky moment", this book will explain it to you in spades. Runners up in the non-fiction category include: The Big Short, ECONned, and Chasing Stars. In particular, Chasing Stars is definitely worth a read if you want a good understanding of how important the environment is for nurturing performance.

On the fiction side, the best book I read this year was Perdido Street Station. I don't usually recommend a book when I'm unable to get past the first chapter the first time I tried it, but I'm glad I gave it a second (or was it third) try. Once I got into the plot China Mieville's writing drew me in and sucked me in as though I was watching a movie. It also helps that Mieville has a huge vocabulary, and is good at coining new words that let you understand what he means right away. If like me, you couldn't get past the first chapter of Perdido Street Station the first few times, try The Scar, his second novel. It's a bit of a slower start, but it too does provide the sense of wonder that science fiction and fantasy is supposed to give to us in spades. In general I had a bad year for fiction this year, and the only other book that I think is worth a read is The Windup Girl. Sure, the science is probably all wrong, but the characterization and correct depiction of South East Asia makes this book a great read.

Finally, I'll echo previous years' recommendation for Fables. If you haven't read it, you just don't now how good comic books can be as a narrative form.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Review: Sway

Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior is a book by the same folks who wrote Click. If by now you're thinking that I should be burned out on Neuroscience/Irrationality books you are absolutely right. I'm going to have to stop reading books like these for a while.

Unlike Priceless, however, Sway is short and contains many little items that I wasn't aware of in other books. It does go over some old stuff, including the sunk cost fallacy, loss aversion, and other very human foibles. However, it also includes some new experiments I hadn't heard about. One particularly memorable experiment has an experimenter posing as a student taking a survey of hikers who have walked across one of two bridges: a swinging bridge, and a traditional stable one. After interviewing the hikers, the experimenter would give her phone number to the hiker. Two interesting results came out of the experiment: the majority of the hikers who called the experimenter came off the swinging bridge. The hypothesis was that the adrenaline rush and closeness to danger made the hikers much more attracted to the experimenter. Thus the experiment was repeated but this time the experimenter only approached the hikers after a few minutes so that the adrenaline rush would die down. Indeed, the number of calls dropped. The experiment was repeated with a male "surveyor", and he got no calls. (Presumably, all the hikers were male) This explains why men try to get women to see horror movies with them on dates.

What's even better is that the book does provide antidotes to the kind of fallacies that it introduces. A particularly important one is the role of a devil's advocate and introducing dissent into the picture. Fundamentally, an organization that has at least one dissenter, even if the dissenter was also or obviously wrong provides cover for other (possibly more clear-sighted) dissenters to raise their objections rather than following group-think. This is particularly important when stakes are high, and appears to make the majority think harder about their decisions and in some cases, mitigate some of the worst errors. This is an important result, because as we've seen in How the Mighty Fall, the first step on the road to failure is an inability to acknowledge that you could be wrong. Naming an official "devil's advocate" as part of the decision making process would go a long way towards mitigating or preventing such problems.

All in all, a short book, a quick read, but lots of little gems. Recommended.

Review: Priceless

I picked up Priceless: The Myth of Fair Value (and How to Take Advantage of It) in the hopes of better understanding how pricing works, and how to tell if I've mis-priced my books, for instance. I was a little bit disappointed, despite the fact that the book overall, is a good read and has valid and interesting points.

Why? A lot of it is that I've read too many books recently referencing Kahneman and Tversky, to the point where Priceless just feels as though it's rehashing the story behind the excellent work of these two gentlemen. Looking at just this year's reading list, Predictably Irrational, The Upside of Irrationality, and to some extent ECONNed have all covered similar ground. Yes, I understand loss aversion, yes I understand anchoring, but no, you're not telling me how to really take advantage of it, except to the limited extent that I already do.

The book is composed of many short chapters, each of whom can be read independently in little bite-sized chunks. While this is great for those with a web-based attention spans, that makes the narrative lose coherence, as there is frequently no linkage between chapters. By itself that's not a fatal flaw, but the result was that I felt like I was getting a cliff's note version of several other books I had already read.

All in all, while I enjoyed the book, I find the other books previously mentioned were just a little fresher. I guess this book is the victim of its timing. Nevertheless, if you've not read any of those books mentioned above, I can recommend this one.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Review: Click - The Magic of Instant Connections

While on my recent trip through the Canadian Rockies, I found myself meeting one person after another and having long and interesting conversations with them. Halfway through the trip I had a chat with a friend of mine, saying, "Hey, I'm pretty good at meeting people." "It took you this long to figure that out?" shot back the reply. When I ran into Janice who had similar experiences in her life, the two of us wondered what it was that made it easy for some people to connect, and whether it was something that could be learned or taught.

Click is a book about such instant connections. It's a really short book: I got started on it this morning and it took no more than a couple of hours to read. The authors claim that instant connections are made more easily possible by five factors:

(from Zachary Burt's review of the same book)
Some of these are within your control. For instance, choosing to be vulnerable to someone else by revealing something about yourself is entirely your decision. To some extent having the environment be something conducive to a connection is also something of a choice: I deliberately chose to stay in youth hostels, for instance, because it put everyone staying in one into the same frame of mind. Other factors seem to be something nearly everyone does: we try to find similarities to one another, and obviously, it's hard to make a connection with someone who's not near you (Google understood this by always shuffling teams to be in close proximity to one another).

What's fascinating to me is the chapter on people who seem to be able to click with everyone all the time. The authors refer to these people as having "high self monitors." In other words, they are social chameleons, able to adapt themselves to any situation and person by expressing sympathy and empathy with them in ways that are appropriate to the social context. High end politicians and fashion models have these, and my PCP is also someone who is like this. Unfortunately, whether you can train yourself to be "high self monitoring" is not covered in the book. I think it would be very exciting to see if such abilities can be trained, given the evidence in the book about how well high self monitors do in their careers in terms of success and flexibility. For instance, high self monitors apparently also change jobs more frequently because their skills are more portable.

All in all, this short book is a quick read the packs a ton of information in a short space. The problem with this book is the lack of depth. In particular, one of the examples is a comparison survey between married couples who met with an "instant connection" and those who didn't. What's missing in that case is to see how many of these "instant connection" marriages failed versus the less dramatic connections. The authors apparently did not realize that there's a significant survivorship bias in the survey they studied.

Nevertheless, despite the flaws, this book is highly recommended. The chapter about how to get teams to gel so they can achieve high performance makes this book a must-have on any manager's bookshelf.

Review: Being Wrong

I really wanted to like Being Wrong, a book about that very human foible. The book opens with a description of the superior mirage and how it destroyed the career of Scottish explorer John Ross. With that opening I hoped for more exposition. I wanted to see a taxonomy of errors. Even better, I wanted a good explanation of how and why we frequently got things wrong, and whether there are ways of making sure that we can correct ourselves. I got the former but none of the latter.

The problem with error is that it's just like getting your homework wrong: there are infinite ways of doing so. Even Kathryn Schulz's book can only get so far as to explaining what sort of errors occur and how they occur. She explores illusions, wholesale destruction of a model of the world (e.g., Alan Greenspan's admittance that his model for how markets could self-regulate was wrong), and religious conversions. She even explores probably the most expensive common error: divorce. But it's all at a shallow level: there's no exploration of how Greenspan's error became the dominant paradigm for policy-making, for instance. She doesn't even discuss the folks who managed to predict which couples would divorce and which won't in her chapter on divorce.

Ultimately, the book praises human error for being a natural result of having minds that can quickly make decisions and have the power to imagine alternate realities, true or not. But that's hardly consolation for those of us who have to make decisions and live with the consequences. As such, I consider this book mostly a waste of time, even though there were individual pieces in the book which were interesting. The author simply wasn't able to cover the topic to my satisfaction.