Category Archives: Reading

Summer reading for the diligent digital technology student

eivindgEivind Grønlund, one of my students at the Informatics: Digital Business and Leadership program at the University of Oslo sent me an email asking about what to read during the summer to prepare for the fall.

Well, I don’t believe in reading textbooks in the summer, I believe in reading things that will excite you and make you think about what you are doing and slightly derail you in a way that will make you a more interesting person when Fall comes. In other words, read whatever you want.

That being said, the students at DigØk have two business courses next year – one on organization and leadership, one on technology evolution and strategy. Both will have a a focus on basics, with a flavor of high tech and the software business. What can you read to understand that, without having to dig into textbooks or books that may be on the syllabus, like Leading DigitalThe Innovator’s SolutionEnterprise Architecture as Strategy, or Information Rules?

Here are four books that are entertaining and wise and will give you an understanding of how humans and technology interact and at least some of the difficulties you will run into trying to manage them – but in a non-schoolbook context. Just the thing for the beach, the mountain-top, the sailboat.

  • 816Neal Stephenson: Cryptonomicon. The ultimate nerd novel. A technology management friend of mine re-reads this book every summer. It involves history, magic reality (the character of Enoch Root), humor, startup lore, encryption and, well, fun. Several stories in one: About a group of nerds (main protagonist: Randy Waterhouse) doing a startup in Manila and other places 1999, his grandfather, Randall P. Waterhouse, running cryptographic warfare against the Germans and Japanese during WWII, and how the stories gradually intersect and come together towards the end. The gallery of characters is hilarious and fascinating, and you can really learn something about startups, nerd culture, programming, cryptography and history along the way. Highly recommended.
  • 7090Tracy Kidder: The Soul of a New Machine. This 1981 book describes the development process of a Data General minicomputer as a deep case study of the people in it. It could just as well have been written about any really advanced technology project today – the characters, the challenges, the little subcultures that develop within a highly focused team stretching the boundaries for what is possible. One of the best case studies ever written. If you want to understand how advanced technology gets made, this is it.
  • 24113Douglas Hofstadter: Gödel, Escher, Bach. This book (aficionados just call it GEB) was recommended to me by one of my professors in 1983, and is responsible for me wanting to be in academia and have time and occasion to read books such as this one. It is also one of the reasons I think The Matrix is a really crap movie – Hofstadter said it all before, and I figured out the plot almost at once and thought the whole thing a tiresome copycat. Hofstader writes about patterns, abstractions, the concept of meta-phenomena, but mostly the book is about self-referencing systems, but as with any good book that makes you think it is breath-taking in what it covers, pulling together music, art, philosophy and computer science (including a bit on encryption, always a favorite) and history. Not for the faint-hearted, but as Erling Iversen, my old boss and an extremely well-read man, said: You can divide techies into two kinds: Those who have read Hofstadter, and those who haven’t.
  • 34017076Tim O’Reilly: WTF? What’s the Future and Why It’s Up to Us. Tim is the founder of O’Reilly and Associates (the premier source of hands-on tech books for me) and has been a ringsider and a participant in anything Internet and digital tech since the nineties. This fairly recent book provides a good overview of the major evolutions and battles during the last 10-15 years and is a great catcher-upper for the young person who has not been been part of the revolution (so far.)

And with that – have a great summer!

Science fiction and the future

I am on the editorial board of ACM Ubiquity – and we are in the middle of a discussion of whether science fiction authors get things right or not, and whether science fiction is a useful predictor of the future. I must admit I am not a huge fan of science fiction – definitely not films, which tend to contain way too many scenes of people in tights staring at screens. But I do have some affinity for the more intellectual variety which tries to say something about our time by taking a single element of it and magnifying it.

So herewith, a list of technology-based science fiction short stories available on the web, a bit of fantasy in a world where worrying about the future impact of technology is becoming a public sport:

  • The machine stops by E. M. Forster is a classic about what happens when we make ourselves completely dependent on a (largely invisible) technology. Something to think about when you sit surfing and video conferencing  in your home office. First published in 1909, which is more than impressive.
  • The second variety by Philip K. Dick is about what happens when we develop self-organizing weapons systems – a future where warrior drones take over. Written as an extension of the cold war, but in a time where you can deliver a hand grenade with a drone bought for almost nothing at Amazon and remote-controlled wars initially may seem bloodless it behooves us to think ahead.
  • Jipi and the paranoid chip is a brilliant short story by Neal Stephenson – the only science-fiction author I read regularly (though much of what he writes is more historic/technothrillers than science fiction per se). The Jipi story is about what happens when technologies develop a sense of self and self preservation.
  • Captive audience by Ann Warren Griffith is perhaps not as well written as the others, but still: It is a about a society where we are not allowed not to watch commercials. And that should be scary enough for anyone bone tired of alle the intrusive ads popping up everywhere we go.

There is another one I would have liked to have on the list, but I can’t remember the title or the author. It is about a man living in a world where durable products are not allowed – everything breaks down after a certain time so that the economy is maintained because everyone has to buy new things all the time. The man is trying to smuggle home a wooden garden bench made for his wife out of materials that won’t degrade, but has trouble with a crumbling infrastructure and the wrapping paper dissolving unless he gets home soon enough…

The boss on the boss

Born to RunBorn to Run by Bruce Springsteen

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is much like a Springsteen song from the early days – long, complex and poetic language, and sometimes it can be a bit hard to hear the vocals above the “wall of sound”. But it has heart, and leaves quite a bit unsaid (and much said.) Good read, especially if you have Internet nearby and can search up the songs and bands mentioned. (Incidentally, here is a Spotify list of the 336 songs mentioned in the book:…).

An interesting twist – and something where I would have liked to read more – is Bruce Springsteen as a leader. His nickname “The Boss” comes from his ability to control and lead the bands he has been in – it has always been his bands, groups accompanying him as an artist, and I find it fascinating how he finds his self-confidence and remains in charge, working with some rather headstrong personalities. That is a management challenge I am curious to know why he undertook, and how he managed to see through.

But an interesting and very well written book. 500 pages plus, but not boring, and not more self-centered than an autobiography will have to be. Recommended.

Oh yeah – there has to be video here, methinks. This one’s good:

View all my reviews

Sapiens unite!

Sapiens: A Brief History of HumankindSapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book (recommended by Grady Booch in his recent talk) attempts to give a brief history of mankind – specifically, Homo Sapiens, as opposed to Neanderthals and other hominids – in one book (a bit reminicent of Geoffrey Blainey’s A Short History of the World.) As such it is interesting, especially the early parts about the transition from hominids to collaborating humans and the cognitive revolution 70000 years ago. It is very clearly written – for instance, the chapter on capitalism and the importance of credit and creditworthiness is something I could hand out to my students directly as a brief explanation of what the fuzz is all about.) The book has been a success, and deservedly so – very rationalist, well informed, if a bit narrow in perspective here and there. The author seems to have a soft spot for hunter-gatherer societies (leading him to describe the agricultural revolution as a step backward for individuals, if not for the human race) and a digression on whether humans are more or less happy now (has historical progress done anything to our serotonine levels (answer: no, it hasn’t, which sort of renders the argument about agrarianism mot) veers towards ranting.

The best part is the way the author describes how much of history and out place in it now is based on inter-subjective fantasies – such as money, religion and states, which exist purely in our minds, because we agree between ourselves that they do.

And easy read, entertaining, and with quite a few very quotable passages here and there, for instance these on our bioengineered future:

Biologists the world over are locked in battle with the intelligent-design movement, which opposes the teaching of Darwinian evolution in schools and claims that biological complexity proves there must be a creator who thought out all biological details in advance. The biologists are right about the past, but the proponents of intelligent design might, ironically, be right about the future.

Most of the organisms now being engineered are those with the weakest political lobbies – plants, fungi, bacteria and insects.


View all my reviews

XKCD answers to everything

What If? : Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical QuestionsWhat If? : Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by Randall Munroe

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

XKCD (i.e., Randall Munroe) addresses questions of all kinds in his inimitable fashion. Great fun and an inspiration in the spirit of Richard Feynman, allowing you to marvel not only at the author’s answers but the sheer inventiveness of the questions (including the “weird and worrying” ones. Highly recommended.

More worm than silk

The Silkworm (Cormoran Strike, #2)The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Easy to finish, but this was rather a disappointment after having read comments that it was “even better” than the first book (Cuckoo’s Calling). The plot is rather predictable – after reading the description of the murder scene I thought I knew who had done it, at 70% through the book I was certain (and i was right, save some minor twists.) Things get rather clichéd (police targeting the likely but obviously guilty suspect and then refusing to talk to the private detective, the eager but inexperienced (and strangely one-dimensioned) assistant, the detective bedding a minor figure to fill things out) and the author even resorts to cheap plot twists a la Dan Brown (e.g., deliberately withholding information by cutting dialogue).

Not sure I will get the next one. This needs some wizardry to improve.

View all my reviews

This be the book

Karl Ove Knausgård‘s My Struggle has been quite the literary phenomenon here in Norway, selling more than 500,000 copies (it is a six-volume “novel”, but it is still one copy for every 10th Norwegian.) There has been much controversy about the book(s) – it is less a novel than an autobiography written by an extremely sensitive observer, pouring his soul into careful descriptions of minor scenes, much some of the indeterminable art films I remember from my youth, where the camera would linger forever on spiralling cigarette smoke or a car on a road, a boring sight but better than the dialogue, which often, in the words of Odd Eidem, sounded like “a line in a Norwegian movie or a scream in a church.”

Anyway, I haven’t read any of it, mostly because I don’t like literary bandwagons unless they contain wizards and can be read to children. But the books are now available in English on Amazon Kindle, and, well, I recently had a long flight, so now I have read the first one. And it is good – though long. As one commentator said, it seems Knausgård has mistaken the “Print” button for “Publish.” But it also, clearly, is a much needed catharsis for the author, a way of writing himself out of a childhood filled with much thinking and self-doubt. Sensitivity can be a burden, but coupled with an extraordinary ability of expression it can result in, well, lots of books.

I think the book, and possibly books, can be summed up very well with Philip Larkin‘s This be the verse1971:

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.

Having said that, I am not sure I wouldn’t electronically grab the next volume on the next long flight. If you were in the right mood, those old melancholy art films at least filled time. Knausgård himself has four children, so he clearly didn’t read (or heed) Larkin….

Forrest Gump from Sweden

The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and DisappearedThe 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a Swedish Forrest Gump story, and like the movie, it is great fun, though you can’t really put your finger on why.

Allan Karlsson absconds from the nursing home in his slippers a few hours before his 100-year birthday is to be celebrated. Within minutes, he is on the run with a suitcase full of money, chased by gangsters and acquiring a motley assortment of friends (including an elephant) as he goes. Interspersed with this are chapters detailing his life as a global, slack-jawed globetrotter, forever stumbling in on historical figures at opportune moments.

Great fun – and some of the Swedishness of the very understated humor makes it through the translation as well.

View all my reviews

Not quite the game I hoped for

Playing the GamePlaying the Game by Alan Lelchuk
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I was lent this by my daughter’s very capable history teacher on the assumption that, since I am interested in both basketball and history, this would be interesting. I love the premise – an obscure history professor and assistant basketball coach at an Ivy League college gets appointed as head coach, with nobody expecting much. By recruiting disadvantaged youth and reading passages of American history to them, he brings the team to the NCAA finals.

It should work, but it doesn’t. The main character is not believable, the history excerpts are too long-winded, and the adversities encountered (racist faculty, an NCAA looking askance at the newcomers and plotting against them, etc.) seem rather contrived. In the end, you start wondering whether the whole story is a figment of the main character’s imagination – not just the author’s.

Pity, it had so much going for it…watch Danny DeVito in Renaissance Man instead – it has humor and compassion, and a slightly similar subject. And the academic comes out on top.

View all my reviews

Four is a little, four is a LOT!

imageMy friend Cheska Komissar is quite a character. Not only does she make a peanut sauce that restores my faith in humanity, she is also the bubbliest person alive and, as of a few months ago, a children’s book author. Her delightful Four is a little, four is a lot is just the thing to get someone turning four – and wondering, as children do: Is four a lot or just a little?

The book has four illustrators (of course), but you would be hard pressed to see the difference in styles – though the collaboration has been remote, the drawings are remarkably close in coloring and style and the underscores the text excellently.


So, count up the number of three-year-olds you know, surf you way over to the Four Dollar Books website and get the requisite number of books (at four dollars each, of course.) They also have birthday cards featuring illustrations from the book – and the combination will be both four-midable and four-tunate…

Highly recommended!

The intellectual bodybuilder

Cover of: Muscle by Samuel Wilson Fussell Muscle: Confessions of an Unlikely Bodybuilder
by Sam Fussell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sam Fussell, a tall and scrawny son of two writers and academics (Paul and Betty Fussell) started bodybuilding in an effort to remake himself, and succeeded, to the point where, 4 years and 80 pounds later, he competed in and nearly won a bodybuilding competition. This is the hilarious story of how he did it and the outlandish characters he met on the way – all in search of size and definition. (Here is a blog post giving a fuller summary.)

A fun read, though there are occasionally too much detail on diet and training regimens – on the other hand, it nicely illustrates the obsessiveness needed. I understand Muscle has become something of a cult read in bodybuilding circles – the author, quitting after realizing the futility in it all, nevertheless leaves you with a feeling that for all the drugs and diets, he did enjoy being something different for a while – still comparatively safe that he had a somewhat privileged position to return to.

View all my reviews

Paul Fussell in memoriam

Paul Fussell, curmudgeon par excellence, died yesterday at 88, according to The New York Times. He was one of my favorite authors ever since I giggled my way through Class: A Guide to the American Status System around 1987, combining insightful analysis with sharp humor and, when serious, righteous and exceptionally well formulated anger.

Of his serious books, I would particularly recommend The Great War and Modern Memory, a literary analysis of how war was described before and after the first world war, for which he won the National Book Award. He wrote similar works about the second world war, as well as an analysis of American travel literature, but it is this one that stands out, the perfect companion to Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong. His autobiography, Doing Battle: The Making of a Skeptic is very interesting – here is a video interview where he talks about it. Of his more essayistic and humorous work, Class: A Guide to the American Status System still stands out as a superb mockery of an academic treatise lightly hiding very sharp observations of the American not-so-hidden status system. It was written in 1983, but holds up well over time – one of those books that irrevocably introduced an ironic view of America you just can’t (and won’t want to) shake.

Fussell apparently was not an easy man to live with, but this seems to have yielded some literature as well: His first wife Betty wrote her own scathing autobiography My Kitchen Wars and his son, less scathingly, the cult tome Muscle: Confessions of an Unlikely Bodybuilder, both of which are highly readable as well.

Keep it simple, stupid–and elegant.

In Pursuit of EleganceIn Pursuit of Elegance: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing by Matthew May
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A nice (I suppose you could say elegant) little book about why less often is more. Anecdotal, well-written, with at least some examples I found very interesting (the “shared space”, rule-free concept of traffic regulation exemplified in the Laweiplein crossing for example, as well as the Nigerian clay pot vegetable coolers,) some I found rather repetitious (the iPhone’s elegant simplicity) and others done better elsewhere (Christopher Alexander’s pattern language approach to architecture.)

Much to like, some to admire, and the book is summed up in the four elements of elegance: Symmetry, seduction, subtraction and sustainability. A nice little read, recommended.

View all my reviews

Quote for the day (Jaron Lanier edition)

“Separation anxiety is assuaged by constant connection. Young people announce every detail of their lives on services like Twitter not to show off, but to avoid the closed door at bedtime, the empty room, the screaming vacuum of an isolated mind.”

“On any given day, one might hear of tens or hundreds of millions of dollars flowing to a start-up company named Ublibudly or MeTickly. [..] At these companies one finds rooms full of MIT PhD engineers not seeking cancer cures or sources of safe drinking water for the underdeveloped world but schemes to send little digital pictures of teddy bears and dragons between adult members of social networks. At the end of the road of the pursuit of technological sophistication appears to lie a playhouse in which humankind regresses to nursery school.”

— Jaron Lanier (2010). You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto, ch. 14

Update May 9: I was going to review this book, and then Jon Battelle goes off and writes a review I completely agree with – though I would like to add that the book is also delightful for its creativity with language and sheer eclecticism.

Thinking long and hard on fast and slow

Thinking, Fast and SlowThinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If you are only going to read one book on psychology this decade – this should be it!

Daniel Kahneman’s new book Thinking Fast and Slow is one of those books you intend to read while taking notes, then just blow through it knowing full well you’ll have to go back and re-read it at least once per year just to swap it all in again. It sums up a lifetime of research into the surprisingly irrational ways we humans make decisions. Kahneman is a founder of experimental economics and received a Nobel price for it.

The book gives an overview of the various ways we make decisions, illustrated with many counterintuitive examples. Its central premise is that humans have two different decision systems: System 1, which is intuitive, fast, and easy, and System 2, which is rational, effortful, and lazy. We can also divide human models into two: Econs (classic Economic Man) and Humans (subject to all of Kahneman’s follies, and then some). And we have two selves: The experiencing self (living in the present) and the remembering self (living in the interpreted past).

Kahneman lays out these concepts, then show, through examples and research summaries, how they interact and influence our decisions. The intellectual stimulation and the practical implications for how we make the important and not so important decisions in our lives are immense – as an example, check this blog post on pricing experiments.

Highly recommended!

(more notes to follow, methinks)

(If you want a really good review – read Freeman Dyson in the New York Review of Books.)

View all my reviews

David Weinberger on Too Big to Know

David Weinberger – another of those authors whose books I read as soon as they come out – recently published Too Big to Know: Rethinking Knowledge Now That the Facts Aren’t the Facts, Experts Are Everywhere, and the Smartest Person in the Room Is the Room, a very long title on the topic of how to separate the wheat from the chaff in a world where knowledge is seemingly inexhaustible. As anyone who has edited Wikipedia knows, knowledge is now dynamic, networked, and crowdsourced, both in academia and outside. Knowledge – good and bad – spreads blisteringly fast and can flatfoot many an authority.

I attended a seminar with David Weinberger today, at the Berkman Center – the turnout was quite good, about 150 people in my estimate. Here are my notes:

  • Physical instantiations of knowledge coming apart (encyclopedias, newspapers, libraries) because of one little innovation: The hyperlink.
  • Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, not his own facts (senator Patrick Moynihan.)
  • Knowledge seen as building on bricks on bricks, nailed down, and then a product of filtering
  • Too much to know, the world is too big to know – the strategy is to break off a brain-sized (“skulls don’t scale”) part of the world and allow an expert to know it really well. We can ask the expert, then get an answer and then we can stop asking. A system of stopping points – you don’t have to rerun the experiment, you can trust experts based on credentials.
  • Books are not linked – linear, winnowed (through good writing), permanent
  • Following footnotes used not to be done, now it is trivial.
  • Knowledge is picking up the properties of the new medium, just as it did pick up properties of the old medium.
  • Clay Shirky: No such thing as information overload, just filter failure.
  • Information overload (Toffler) came from sensory overload idea, 60s. People worried about information overload, would not keep you sane.
  • What constitutes information overload has changed – we tolerate much more stuff now.
  • Previously, stuff that was filtered out (by publishers and newspapers) was not available, but now it is, in blog posts. We filter forward on the Internet, we do not filter out.
  • New strategy: Include everything, the cost of getting rid of something is higher than getting rid of it. So you include almost everything. And you filter on the way out. (you’d never keep notes from library committee meetings in Wozilla, Alaska, because they would not be interesting, until Sarah Palin becomes vice-presidential candidate)
  • We are good at making order out of things. Knowing categories is to know the world – categorization is a serious pursuit for thousands of years. But physical entities need to have one and only one categorization – you cannot sort your CD collection alphabetically and by genre. But on the web, you can have thousands of playlists – a mess but a very rich mess.
  • Messiness is how you scale meaning.
  • For every fact on the Internet there is an equal and opposite fact. The Internet is a stew of disagreement. We don’t agree on anything and we never will. And that is fine.
  • We don’t even know if Moynihan really said that thing about facts and opinions
  • Shows picture of platypus, lots of arguing about its categorization – now we don’t care any more. We can have different namespaces that allow us to choose categorizations based on what we prefer.
  • We like to hang out with people like ourselves, and that is a problem – because we can create echo-chambers, which fragment and amplify disagreements.
  • Idea from the enlightenment – deep, down to the level of facts, anything else is not a real conversation. But this is a fallacy, for in order to do that you need to have large degree of similarity. Not going to solve that here, but Ethan Zuckerman and Yochai Benkler (both present) are working on it.
  • Long-form arguments are loosing their pre-eminence as highest form of human discourse. (Yes, I know I wrote a book, get the irony.) Not going away, but losing its preeminence. Darwin would, if he published now, be tweeting from the Beagle, had a conversation about finches’ beaks. And this web of knowledge would have more value than Darwin’s original work.
  • Michael Nielsen: Redesigning discovery., scientists posting papers and discussing them.
  • Destructuring of knowledge is happening at all levels, also at the level of the data themselves. Darwin studied barnacles for 7 years after Beagle trip. Data is not like that any more. Data commons happening in field after field: Genetics, astronomy, government, libraries. posting raw data because cleaned and curated data doesn’t scale.
  • Tremendous value in getting data out – and fast. Peer review doesn’t scale. Cannot scale science research, unless it is peer-to-peer review – open access journals that are peer reviews.
  • The third way data is changing is that it is linked – computers can make sense and link three different knowledge nuggets about platypuses (characterizing them as platypus, watermole, and ornithorhyncus anatinus) can be linked by linking to references.
  • This process is fractal and recurring.
  • Data are getting linked, fractal and destructured.
  • Networked knowledge may or may not be truer about the world, but it is truer about knowing.
  • What we have in common is not knowledge about which we agree, but a shared world about which we disagree.

Professor Ann M. Blair (author of Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age) with question: On the pyramid from data to information to knowledge to wisdom, Plato said that the purpose is wisdom. Aristotle wanted a disciplinary (certain) form of knowledge, middle ages brought us information concept (Bacon). Information explosion already in the 1800s, that’s when data enters the language, takes off during 1950s. Now it is just raw data.

Good things about the book: Nuanced, neither technology deterministic or not, but you can find data and authoritative knowledge behind every position. Like that it is not about substitution but net as an addition. The net cannot stand in for current institutions. The book is optimistic – we need to understand and use the net. I do hope that we are imparting mental maps and the wherewithal to make judgments – though I am of the wrong generation. Not “don’t use Wikipedia” but learning how to notice deficiencies.

Comment from librarian Harvard (missed the name). What are going to do about building a knowledge infrastructure? Knowledge is lumpy, intertwiningly linked and so on, but there are still tensions between truth and untruth. We do not have one foundation on which we can rest for very long. Today we are caught in a time warp between the long form book and the Net revolution, and we don’t have a handle on this new form of knowledge yet? Refer to Thinking, Fast and Slow: Is the net making us change from thinking slow to thinking fast – i.e., making decisions based on reactiveness rather than analysis?

Ethan Zuckerman: This is the book that shifts us from the early Weinberger to the middle Weinberger. I don’t think this a happy book – we just had a very smart man stand up and tell us that facts is not what we thought they were and consensus is probably not achievable. If this doesn’t unsettle you, what will? David’s central point is that this is not economics: What killed the Boston Globe was that some fundamental processes change the world, in how we know things and how we find it. He is making the argument that we are going to put something in a book and make it authoritative is challenged. We are now three nanoseconds after the Big Bang, and it will take us a very long time to navigate through this. The deep challenge he is putting forward is to understand the world is to understand and accept the complexity of the world. Those of us who figure out to navigate this space are given the possibility of succeeding in a new and very different way. Houseman: The advent of economic complexity: Think of it in terms of person-bytes: Houseman argues that you can figure out what economies can or cannot do, by understanding how many person-bytes you have in it. You can line up experts and that is good, but it works really well if the knowledge lies between the experts – understanding knowledge as a process. So what I am hoping for is some understanding of how we are going to navigate this web of knowledge. This is the most exciting question you can wrestle with. The world David is describing is much messier, but by helping us wrestle with it he has helped us.


How does the definition of truth change – have we gotten truth wrong?

We all have categories, fight about them, are you saying they are losing relevance? No, not at all, but the notion of a single, right categorization is losing its primacy. We discuss whether bloggers are journalists or not, many things hang on it, but we understand that there is not one right answer.

Importance of personal relationship rising parallel to web? Social dimension to knowledge? Will take the easy way out – I learn from mailing lists, and they eventually become social bonds. We want to turn information into communication.

History for homebodies

At Home: A Short History of Private LifeAt Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Bill Bryson is one of those writers whose books I buy sight unseen – so I can’t really understand how I missed this one. I got it as a very welcome Christmas gift and read it in small portions over the holiday – the book is ostensibly a walk through an old English house, room for room, but that framework serves only to very loosely organize a barrage of anecdotes and historical trends.

It is obvious that Bryson enjoyed writing this book – perhaps more than any other he has written. As one reviewer noted, it seems written in the pajamas. Many, if not most, of the stories he retells I have read before, but that doesn’t take away any of the pleasure of hearing Bill Bryson tell them again.

And sometimes you find a local connection – I currently live in Brookline, MA, and liked the story of John Longyear, who moved his whole 65-room house from Battle Creek, Michigan to Brookline in 1902. Longyear, of course, is the same business magnate who founded what eventually became Store Norske Spitsbergen Kulkompani and gave his name to Longyearbyen. The enormous house is just a few blocks up from where I live, now part of a condominium complex.

Like his “Short History of Almost Everything”, this book is neither short nor a traditional history book, but it is immensely enjoyable. Preferably at home, with your feet up in front of the fire.

View all my reviews

Fulfilling the status role of books

Espen Andersen (Photo: Nard Schreurs)In my office at BI Norwegian Business School I have many books, accumulated over the years. In my living room I have even more, having spent time building bookshelves and defending the wall space against family members who think it could be put to better use. And in my basement I have stacks of cartons with even more books, which I do not have the heart to throw out – hey, I might get around to reading the complete works of Hermann Hesse, in German, some day – but not the space to display.

The book collection is nice – I like books, I can remember almost viscerally where most of them are, and often all that is necessary to remember what is in them is just to take them out of the shelf. And they do tell everyone around me that I am a bona fide intellectual, should anyone wonder.

But I (almost) don’t read books on paper any more – I buy them and read them on my Kindle or PC or iPad. Electronic books are searchable, weightless, cheap, accessible and cost nothing to store. But nobody can see how many books I have on my PC or Kindle. Having many books signals status, to the point where there are companies that will fill you bookshelves for you, in any color and style you want, for a fee. The usefulness of books as status signals will diminish over time, however, just as what has happened with CD racks, which you don’t display anymore, unless you have thousands of vinyl records and cross the threshold from music lover to music fanatic. So, what to do?

The Norwegian publishing and bookselling industry, an astonishingly backward group of companies when it comes to anything digital, yesterday introduced a new concept for e-books that, even for them, is rather harebrained. They want to sell e-book tablets where you can buy books not as downloads (well, you can do that, too) but as files loaded on small plastic memory cards, to be inserted into the reader [article in Norwegian]. This preserves their business model (though they can probably stop using trucks and start using bicycles for distribution). According to their not very convincing market analysis, this is aimed at the segment of the book buying market who do not want to download books from the net (but, for some reason, seem to want to read books electronically.)

imageI initially thought I would make a joke about having to replace my bookshelves with neat little minishelves for the plastic cards, when it dawned on me that perhaps we have the solution here – i.e., a model where we could get the accessibility of digital books with the status display of the paper version. Why couldn’t the publishing industry sell you a digital book (for downloading, if you please) bundled with a cardboard book model, with binding and all, to put in your bookshelf? This would look great, allow you to effortlessly project your intellectualism and elevated taste, while avoiding the weight, dust, and (since these books would only need to be a in inch or two deep) space nuisances of traditional books. You could even avoid physical distribution by letting the customer self-print and cut and fold the “shelf-book” in the right format.

You could even electronically link the two, so that you cold pick your cardboard book from the shelf, wave it in the direction of the e-book tablet (using transponder, 2D barcoding or other identifying techniques) and the book would show up in your reader. If you really wanted to show off, you could add a little color coded bar indicated how far you were in each book, much like a download bar for your computer, to be displayed on each book. Moreover, such as book could be lent from one reader to another.

I recently bought Don DeLillo’s Underworld for my Kindle. Imagine if it came with with nice little book spine, leather as an expensive option, with a barcode and a “read” bar as illustrated here…status, spatial memory, interior decoration, and a way to gradually replace the paper library with an electronic one without disruption.

Remember, you saw it here first!

(In case you wondered: Yes, I am being facetious.)

Two books on search and social network analysis

Social Network Analysis for Startups: Finding connections on the social webSocial Network Analysis for Startups: Finding connections on the social web by Maksim Tsvetovat
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Concise and well-written (like most O’Reilly stuff) book on basic social network analysis, complete with (Python, Unix-based) code and examples. You can ignore the code samples if you want to just read the book (I was able to replicate some of them using UCINet, a network analysis tool).

Liked it. Recommended.

Search Analytics for Your Site: Conversations with Your CustomersSearch Analytics for Your Site: Conversations with Your Customers by Louis Rosenfeld
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Very straightforward and practically oriented – with lots of good examples. Search log analysis – seeing what customers are looking for and whether or not they find it – is as close to having a real, recorded and analyzable conversation with your customers as you can come, yet very few companies do it. Rosenfeld shows how to do it, and also how to find the low-hanging fruit and how to justify spending resources on it.

This is not rocket science – I was, quite frankly, astonished at how few companies do this. With more and more traffic coming from search engines, more and more users using search rather than hierarchical navigation, and the invisibility of dissatisfied customers (and the lost opportunities they represent) this should be high on any CIOs agenda.

Highly recommended.

View all my reviews

Steven Pinker on the decline of violence

Steven Pinker, just out with a new book (The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined), gives a talk outlining how rates of violence are falling in the world, and the causes of this. Excellent, highly recommended, and available for free in high resolution:

Progress is actually progress. Hans Rosling would agree.

Update March 30, 2012: I really should clean up my notes and add to this post, but this review by Peter Singer sums it all up nicely, so I won’t bother. But it is worth a read, 800 pages and all.