The Change Function

The Change FunctionI just finished reading The Change Function: Why Some Technologies Take Off and Others Crash and Burn. The author, Pip Coburn, used to run the technology group of UBS Investment Research.

Drawing from his experience, Coburn makes a pretty simple premise. The likelihood of success for a given technology is a function of the user crisis vs. the total perceived pain of adoption. Stated another way, for a technology (or any product or service really) to succeed, it must address some problem or crisis the customer knows they have and the customer must think the pain of the solution is less than the pain of the problem. Coburn asserts this is a user-centric way of viewing problems, and that this user-centric is the only way to succeed because the user/customer is ultimately in charge of his/her behavior and purchases.

This idea seems obvious when stated so clearly, yet it's not difficult to think of examples of failures in this way, even in the products I've developed. Coburn cites many examples of the supplier-centric view where some technologist has a cool idea that they think users will latch onto once the price is right or once the users "get it".

For instance, he points to the entertainment PC, like Microsoft's Media Center PC, as a supplier-centric invention that does not address a user crisis (e.g. "I need to have an all-in-one entertainment center on my TV") and fails to address the perceived pain of adoption ("You want me to put an expensive PC in my living room?! One more complicated thing to manage?!") Fortunately (for Microsoft), Coburn agrees that sometimes you need to (or can) create a user crisis or appeal to some deeper crisis (e.g. iPod appealing to the user desire to fit in and be cool vs. the need to carry an MP3 player), so maybe there's hope yet.

By way of counter example, he points to Netflix as a venture that found a good user crisis (hatred of late fees, limited in-store video selection, pain of returning videos) and a low perceived pain of adoption (log on, order, get stuff in the mail, drop it back in the mail.) As a long-time Netflix user, I'd have to agree.

I've found myself applying this pattern to our planning for future versions of IE. I've been asking everyone involved about what real crisis each feature is meant to address and how users will perceive the pain of adoption. While we've always tried to apply these ideas implicitly, it's already been helpful to apply them explicitly.

The book is an easy read with only a few key points and lots of good examples. I highly recommend it.

The Big Oyster

The Big Oyster book coverI just finished The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell, another interesting food history book by Mark Kurlansky (author of Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World and Salt: A World History - I wrote about these books earlier).

The title is somewhat misleading. The book is really a history of New York from the perspective of oysters. It's a little hard to believe now, but New York City and the waters surrounding it were once incredibly productive fishing grounds and the richest oyster beds in the world. New Yorkers rich and poor ate obscene numbers of oysters and shipped barrels of fresh and pickled oysters across America and around the world.

Like Cod and Salt, The Big Oyster was an engaging read cover-to-cover. This one was a bit different, however, because the scope was so local. Where Salt was a really global and across world history and Cod spanned centuries and focused on trans-Atlantic trade, The Big Oyster was very localized to New York City and the time since colonization. As a result, the book was less epic but perhaps a little more intimate.

Aside from the oyster details, Kurlansky weaves in a bunch of New York history and lore, like how Wall Street got its name and a running history of Delmonico's Restaurant. I have only a passing knowledge of New York, so these bits were interesting and new to me.

Anyway, I really like Kurlansky's style. Since I've finished his food mini-histories, I think it's time to move onto some of his other books.

Eragon the Movie: Yuck

Eragon movie poster

The kids and I have enjoyed the book Eragon (and Eldest, the second book in the trilogy) as well as the books on tape for some time now. Yes, they're a bit derivative and the writing is pretentious, but they're good reads.

So, we were very excited when we saw that the movie version of Eragon was coming.

We shouldn't have been. I thought it was terrible. Even the kids thought it was bad. Andrew (9) said optimistically, "Well, it looked nice and it was so different from the book it was like watching a whole new story." Michelle just convulsed with laughter at how bad the movie was.

It did look nice. I also didn't mind the casting (although I'm not sure John Malkovich really fit my idea of Galbatorix). But the story raced along with no plot or character development. I had a hard time understanding why Eragon was doing what he was doing, and I've read the books. I also thought the dialog was just too cheesy. Maybe I just hate all movie adaptations. (Not true: I really liked the Lord of the Rings series, but I haven't read the books in 25+ years).

The only possible blessing is that they seem to have cut off so many parts of the story line that a movie version of Eldest seems unlikely. They didn't tee up any of the big elements that make up the second book. Thank goodness.

How to read a book

This may strike you as an odd post title and maybe a bit presumptuous, but let me explain. From 1995-1999 or so, I worked on a product called Microsoft Bookshelf, a CDROM title that contained 5-8 reference books, depending on the version and country we were publishing in. I worked on the team during a period of great expansion, when we launched several international versions of Bookshelf. As such, I had to help evaluate many reference books in a short time to determine what special features and difficulties the books might pose as we moved them online. I found the lessons I learned apply not only to reference books, but to many other non-fiction books and the occasional fiction title.

  1. Check the date. This may tell you a lot about how current the book is and may indicate the context in which the book was written.
  2. Look at the Table of Contents. This will give you a quick overview of the whole book.
  3. Flip through the opening pages. There are often explanatory chapters, essays, and other interesting material in the very beginning. In my old Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary, there is an explanation of how the entries are made up and a history of the English language essay. (These essays are often great reads, btw.)
  4. Look at the end pages. There is often additional reference content. In my dictionary, there are biographies and geographical place names (affectionately referred to as "bios and geos" and often used to pad out the entry count of a dictionary) and a small manual of style. Other works will have an index (good to see how it is arranged) and appendices (useful to see how extensive they are and how much the author is counting on you to read them to make sense of the chapters.)
  5. Finally, flip through the main body of the book now and get a sense for a typical bit of content -- an entry, a paragraph, etc. Check the tone (do you like the style?). Look for length and completeness of the text. Check out the number and quality of the illustrations. For reference works, you can check a few test articles to see how up-to-date the book is. For instance, in a dictionary, look for words that are relatively new like bird flu or instant message or that have new meanings like text as a verb. In an atlas or encyclopedia, look to see if the map of India has Mumbai or Bombay.

In just a few minutes, you can get a pretty complete picture of the book. I find that this approach helps me with non-fiction books that aren't reference as well; I have a better handle on what to expect and what resources the author has given me.

Anyway, try it out on your next read!

A History of the World in 6 Glasses

Cover of A History of the World in 6 GlassesI got a great book from my in-laws for Christmas this year that combines my interest in odd pivots on history with my passion for beer, wine, and whisky. It's called A History of the World in 6 Glasses by Tom Standage.

The author chronicles how beer, wine, coffee, tea, spirits, and cola impacted world history. For instance, tea provided safer water by both requiring boiling of the water plus the antiseptic properties of tea itself; this allowed larger populations to grow safely with a minimized threat of dysentery. It, of course, also fueled trade between England and China, ultimately culminating in the Opium War and the wholesale pushing of drugs on the Chinese (since there was very little the Chinese wanted from the British aside from gold, silver, and opium in exchange for tea.) Tea also heavily impacted the history of America. Taxes on tea by the British (and efforts to stomp out weathy American tea smugglers) helped fuel the American independence movement including the infamous Boston Tea Party.

Among other things, I found it interesting that all of these were originally used for medicinal purposes. For instance, wine was used to clean wounds more effectively than water until relatively recently since it's free of pathogens and has natural antibacterial agents. And, of course, the story of Coca Cola's origins as patent-medicine are well-known.

Cover of The Devil's CupIt's also fascinating how a lot of attitudes and practices today are artifacts of old or even ancient customs. As an example, the black tea that was imported into England was often heavily adulterated by middle men to increase profits. The addition of milk and sugar helped conceal the off flavors, so that even today with pure teas available, the English still drink tea with milk and sugar. And, closer to my experience, the original symposia were wine drinking parties where people gathered to debate and discuss the topics of the day. Modern symposiums are still certainly drinking parties with some debate and discussion.

The topic of coffee's role in fueling the Enlightenment, the formation of such London companies as Lloyd's, and the rise of the French Revolution are touched on in this book as well. The role of coffee is covered even more deeply in The Devil's Cup : A History of the World According to Coffee by Stewart Lee Allen. This is a bit lighter book that I read last year but didn't get around to blogging about.

Anyway, A History of the World in 6 Glasses is a good read and worth enjoying with a cup of tea. Or beer, wine, whisky, coffee, or Coke.


Postsecret janitor card

Postsecret is an amazing website that shows postcards people have sent in that have some personal secret. The cards can be quite artistic, and the secrets range from very personal and deep to funny but real to plain scary and horrible.

They only have a few cards on the site now. The archives are available in book form (which is beautifully done and a fun read/browse) as well as a travelling exhibit. A small gallery of old cards is also available here.

As a side note, I think it's neat when a blog makes the transition to the "real world" like this, but I hope the site doesn't become worthless like Belle de Jour did when she published her book Belle De Jour : Intimate Adventures of a London Call Girl. (Not safe for work, btw. Also, is it required that websites that move to book form take the title pattern, "[sitename]:[tagline]"? That's like the old Microsoft naming pattern "Microsoft [category name] for [platform name]". Lame.)

Anyway, it's worth a few minutes to check out. Anyone out there sent in a postcard?

PostSecret : Extraordinary Confessions from Ordinary Lives

"Collapse" by Jared Diamond

I just finished reading Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, by Jared Diamond. As you may know, Diamond is the author of the Pulitzer Prize winning book Guns, Germs, and Steel, one of my favorites.

Collapse is a similarly fascinating read, with case studies of why certain civilizations like the Mayans, Easter Islanders, and Greenland Norse failed while others like the Inuit, Icelanders, and Tikopians managed to survive under similar conditions. He creates a five-point framework for considering how a successful a society might be in a given environment:

  • Environmental damage caused by the population. This is really a combination of the resiliance of the environment and the practices of the people. For instance, the topsoil in Greenland is very thin so it blows away very easily. Also, in Greenland, trees and plants grow very slowly, so recovery from harvesting is slow.

  • Climate change. Historically, this has been the result of natural events like volcanic eruptions, changes in the tilt of the earth, and natural cycles. Clearly, today, the effects may be manmade. In either case, growing seasons and hunting may shift causing reduced crop yield, ice may form blocking shipping, or ingrained habits may no longer be effective in the new conditions.

  • Hostile neighbors. It's unclear whether warfare was sufficient to cause the collapse of societies, but certainly societies weakened by other factors became vulnerable to final collapse via fighting with neighbors. Also, fighting would reduce the resources and focus available for more productive activities.

  • Decreased support by friendly neighbors. Societies heavily dependent on trade are vulnerable to weakening when trading partners become weak or unavailable for whatever reason. This could be things like essential trade goods (e.g. oil for the US) or cultural ties (Australia's cultural ties to England.)

  • Society's responses to problems. In some cases societies acted decisively in the face of impending disasters and staved off collapse; Japan's management of their near deforestation is one example. In other cases, the society ignored or failed to see the coming disasters and did not act; Easter Island is a classic example of the failure to prevent deforestation and the resultant societal collapse.

  • His claim is that it's overly simplistic to assign one of these factors as the sole reason a society might fail (i.e. the Roman Empire did not fall strictly because of hostile neighbors.) His case studies show how the various factors then came into play and contributed to a collapse or were mitigated to prevent collapse.

    Perhaps more interesting than the more historical cases were the more modern ones. I especially found the study of Haiti vs. the Dominican Republic interesting. Here are two countries sharing the same island. While they have had some differences in their history (for instance, Haiti was colonized by the French, the Dominican Republic by the Spanish) and geography (Haiti is drier and more mountainous than the DR) they have much in common. Nonetheless, Haiti is a disaster in human, political, environmental, and economic terms while the Domincan Republic is much better off (although it has it's share of problems). This one case study really highlights how the factors came into play in a reasonably apples-to-apples comparison.

    I found it impossible to read this book without continually applying the lessons from the past to our modern day situation of global warming, depleted natural resources, global conflict, global trade dependence, and short-term political problem solving. While the learnings in the book provide the basis for solutions, I did not leave the book with a optimism about our future on our current track. I did feel more compelled to take action to prevent the collapse our society and hopefully leave something good for my kids and their kids.

    If you liked Guns, Germs, and Steel or enjoy this kind of scholarly discourse, you'll really enjoy Collapse. I highly recommend it.

The Goblet of Fire

This morning, I saw a preview showing of the new Harry Potter movie, The Goblet of Fire. I've blogged before about my love of the HP franchise and my views of the movies. I thought this was the best of the HP movies so far, but I still didn't like it nearly as much as the books. I did think that the cuts from the book were better this time as was the handling of the backstory.

I must admit that I'm not a fan of most of the new cast, with the exception of Miranda Richardson as Rita Skeeter. (It's too bad the character wasn't very prominent in the movie.) Cedric, Crouch, Crouch Jr, Karkaroff, and Maxime were OK too. Cl

Chicken Little and Serenity

cl_animate01_1.gifI don't see a lot of movies in theaters (mostly for time reasons), so it was a bit unusual this week that I saw two.

This evening we took the boys to see Chicken Little. This was a very fun movie that we all enjoyed. The boys are both finally old enough to enjoy movies in theaters; for a while, they both found theaters too stimulating -- too loud and the screen was too big. Anyway, it was a cute movie with Shrek-like use of parent-era pop music. I think the family was a little embarassed as I sang along...

Earlier in the week, Michelle and I saw Serenity. This is the movie version of the cult-favorite TV show Firefly. We had never seen the TV show, but we both really enjoyed this movie as well. It's a well-done sci-fi flick with a good premise and enough pace and tension to keep you on your toes. In particular, River, played by Summer Glau, is appropriately creepy and strange. The movie would have made more sense if I knew the backstory and characters better; this is one of the limitations of setting a TV show to film. I did do a little retroactive homework online to learn about the show, which cleared up a lot. I might need to see it again now.

Anyway, I had forgotten how enjoyable it is to see a film in a theater instead of on my laptop or TV. I'll have to start going more often. I will, however, not give Michael anymore Skittles; his hands were purple by the end of the movie somehow. Yuck.