Sunday, December 28, 2008

2008 in books... with reviews!

I’m probably missing a few that I’ll think of later, but here’s a summary of the year’s books, as I’ve fallen behind in book reviews I'd meant to blog. I’ll try to keep it brief but feel free to comment if there are additional questions about any of them.

Next year I've got to try and up it a bit. 1.5  books/month is way lower than I should be consuming. 

In no particular order (other than the order I found them around the house):

1. The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Manga Edition: An Illustrated Leadership Fable, by Patric M Lencioni and Kensuke Okabayashi. 


I’ve sometimes complained that many business books feel like enough content to fill a ten to twenty page paper, that has then been bloated to book size. In the case of this book, what they did, rather than bloat it, was to illustrate it to make it a fun read. I picked it up on a whim after spotting it at Powell’s but thought the style fun and learned a thing or two along the way.

2. Slide:ology: The Art and Science of Creating Great Presentations, by Nancy Duarte.

Recommended, but with mixed feelings.

This is one of the new generation of ‘pretty’* books about effective powerpoint. I’d say effective presentations, but it’s really more about the powerpoint. Despite making the point numerous times that ‘it’s about the presenter, not the slides’, the book spends the majority of time on the slides, paying only a small amount of attention to the presenter. In addition, a number of its ‘case studies’ consist of nothing more than referencing a TED presentation and saying it was awesome. Now, these complaints aside, there were a couple good tips I picked up out of the book, such as the idea of creating panoramas & scenes in presentations, and tips on lighting and object arrangement to create a sense of space in slides. Thus the recommendation with trepidation: If you are like me and feel that a $20 book that gives you at least one or two usable ideas is good value, then you’ll like this book. However, you’ll have to see past its flaws to do so.

Pros: Good lessons on design basics, different slide arrangement styles, panoramas and scenes.

Cons: Not enough time spent on the presenter as opposed to the presentation materials. Borrows heavily from other authors without even distilling usefully (e.g. the bit on Guy Kawasaki’s 10/20/30 rule even attempts to re-tell his jokes. Doesn’t work at parties, doesn’t work in books). Attempts to throw in some ‘tips’ that are way too low level (e.g. telling me keyboard shortcuts for powerpoint isn’t useful unless the whole book works at that level. Who’s to say I’m not using another piece of software altogether?)

*As an aside, there seems to be a trend in many corporate cultures of ‘powerpoint replaces the word doc’. Intel’s got a chronic case of this, and Microsoft seemed to be falling into the trap during the time I was there. Anyhow, the same thing seems to be happening with some books, and books on presentations seem to be leading the way. They are turning into sparse, picture-laden coffee table books. Aesthetically pleasing, but it ultimately means the book can only convey so much. Slideology & Presentation Zen both are case in point here.

3. Losing Faith: How the (Andy) Grove Survivors Led the Decline of Intel's Corporate Culture, by Bob Coleman and Logan Shrine. 

Recommended, but only for some and with a caveat.

The short version is that this book argues that Andy Grove was the rudder to the ship of Intel’s corporate culture (one of ruthless attention to detail, paranoia, and intellectual honesty) and that the ship has slowly drifted off course in the eras of leadership following his. I’ve recommended the book to several Intellites, as I feel there are some fairly spot-on -fairly painful- observations, and that they do a good job of dissecting and categorizing the symptoms and causes. On the other hand, my main complaints are that very few sources and data points are actually cited, and the authors pull the “we have a source but can’t disclose his name” card a few too many times. In fact, its only because I’ve spent eight of the past ten years there that I can recall my own case examples to support most of their theories. Book recommended to folks who work at Intel, or at companies dominated by a single visionary leader (I'm looking at you, Appleites!)

4. Zag: The Number One Strategy of High-Performance Brands

Not Recommended

When everyone else Zigs, you've got to ZAG! Ok, you've got it, you no longer need to read this book. 

It's easy to point to lots of people that bucked the rules, zagged when everyone else zigged, and were wildly successful. However, what they don't point out is that for every wild success, there were a dozen miserable failures. It's called monday morning quarterbacking and it's easy to do. There's a also a strong argument for 'zigging', if you are prepared to outpace and outspend your competition in a very stable marketplace, etc. Anyhow I thought the book weak.

Not Recommended.

Man, it pains me to say it. I'm quoting Seth often enough to consider myself a Godin disciple, but still I can't recommend this. I thought the book was not his finest work. The basic theme is 'its always darkest before the dawn', but doesn't offer a lot of advice for seeing when there may be a dawn, vs cases where they may not be one coming.

6. Content: Selected Essays on Technology, Creativity, Copyright, and the Future of the Future, by Cory Doctorow

Highly Recommended.

You don't need to buy this book. It's a collection of essays published elsewhere (many of them online), and Cory makes the book itself available under Creative Commons license. However, I found the dead-tree version a nice portable read, great for moments during takeoff and landing, and other small breaks. His ideas on, well, all the areas listed in the title, are fantastic.

7. Little Brother, Cory Doctorow

Highly Recommended.

Cory's teen-fic sci-fi novel about teen hackers that rebel against a too-big-for-its-britches department of homeland security is the type of distopian sci-fi that takes place just close enough to the present and just close enough to reality to scare you like hell. Great read.

8. Settlers of the New Virtual Worlds, by Erik Bethke and Erin Hoffman.

Highly recommended.

I did a Detailed review here. In short, a compelling series of essays about developments in Virtual Worlds, and how the biggest developments in VW’s and MMO’s over the coming years won’t be about 3D file formats or pixel shaders, but rather copyright, property rights, and even human rights. The ideal grounding read to the imaginative thoughts that Halting State will conjur up.

9. Halting State, by Charles Stross

Highly Recommended.

A sci-fi novel about a bank heist taking place in a virtual world, it's a good sci-fi/detective story in it's own right, but what really sets it apart is the fantastic depiction of many things in the near future of games, including MMO's, VW's, intra-world communications, identity, PvP, ARGs, RMT, and many many more. I'll go so far as to say it's one of my top 5 recommendations for those looking to understand the future of games.

10. Clear and to the Point: 8 Psychological Principles for Compelling PowerPoint Presentations by Stephen M Kosslyn.

Not Recommended

I reviewed it in back in January, but the punchline was: Author Stephen Kosslyn's main differentiator from other PPT books is that he's an expert in cognitive psychology, and the book attempts to explain some of the science behind why we understand things the way we do, and what works or what doesn't... and then applies that to run-of-the-mill, 4 points per slide, max 4 sub-bullets per point PowerPoint pabulum! Yuck!

11. Presentation Zen: Simple Ideas on Presentation Design and Delivery (Voices That Matter), by Garr Reynolds


I reviewed it back in January, and recommend it for anyone looking for a cold glass of ‘chuck out your bullet points and tell a frikkin story’.

12. Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life, by Steve Martin


Steve Martin's autobiographical accounting of his path to stand-up comic success was interesting from a couple perspectives. It was interesting to learn what influences and experiences shaped his abilities and style. More interesting, however, was to learn that once he'd had a vision for what unique path he wanted to forge in comedy, it was not immediately popular. It took a decade of beleiving in his vision while toiling in obscurity before it would be recognized. How many of us would beleive in ourselves that strongly? 

13. It's Not About the Coffee: Leadership Principles from a Life at Starbucks, by Howard Behar

Not Recommended

The basic premise is beleive in people, focus on the people, etc, etc. However, its coated in way too much "we are so awesome!" syrup to be tolerable, let alone valuable. My new rule is to only read books about businesses from those that have gone through (surviving or not) catastrophies. Behar's book was published in late 2007, and probably completed in early to mid-2007, shortly after their stock's meteoric climb. One wonders whether some better lessons may have been learned in time since then, since the stock has fallen back to 2001 levels.

14. Welcome to the Creative Age - Bananas, Business and the Death of Marketing, by Mark Earls 


This book about what's gone wrong with marketing over the past decades, and how it will and must change in the modern era, is a good read. It was written back in 2002, and I was glad to have read it after its had a few years to mellow. Sometimes ideas that are very de rigeur at a given point in time, seem silly and dated only a short time later. There are few of those in this book, and most have stood the test of at least a small amount of time. 

15. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, by Jared Diamond


A fascinating analysis of the factors leading to the collapse of societies. Diamond uses riveting accountings of downfalls of ancient societies (e.g. the people of Easter Island, for one) to illustrate common factors leading to societal collapse. He does this to make the case of how we are at risk in the modern age of making many of the same mistakes. I thought it interesting how many of the same factors have metaphorical equivalents in the business world that lead to the collapse of companies and industries. Anyhow, gread read.

16. Magic and Showmanship: A Handbook for Conjurers, by Henning Nelms


I reviewed this back in January. In short, a book about the theatre of magic, from which any presenter may learn a thing or two.

17. The Back of the Napkin: Solving Problems and Selling Ideas with Pictures, by Dan Roam

Recommended, but only for some.

There are some good tips in here on basics of doing illustrations/sketches on napkins or whiteboards. It's recommended for those looking for just that. However, the thing I struggle with is that of coming up with teh visual metaphor for an abstract idea. That's trickier, and as of yet, not something I've found comes in a book.

Highly Recommended

I just got this one from Santa, and haven't been able to put it down. Should be done in the next day or two, but can already highly recommend it, *especially* for anyone working in the games industry. Those working in games will read many examples of the history that we are now repeating. As such, it might offer us a few pointers to the future. Even if you don't work in games, the accounting of the history of technology & innovation in Hollywood is quite fascinating.

Whew. That's it. Happy reading!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Mad igloo skilz!

Mad igloo skilz!, originally uploaded by Kim Pallister.

Just as the city started to dig out (I got the car out for the first time all week yesterday - and needed to chain up just to make it off the street), it dumped another few inches on us last night.

We took advantage and spent the morning building snowforts, sledding and following animal tracks in the snow.

(this igloo never made it beyond the 2/3 Pi circumference and 1/2 height, but was enough to withstand a snowball onslaught)

Friday, December 19, 2008

RIAA To Stop Prosecuting Individual File Sharers

Well, it's about time the lawyers learned that punishing customers and stomping on the little man and other such acts weren't going to help them in the popularity department.

Next up, video.

It will be interesting to see where this gets us with games, as that will likely be the next area of heated debate. 

In the meantime, a few in the games business are already boldly stepping outside of DRM shackles and hoping that maybe fewer hurdles between the customer and the cash register may actually result in more of them getting there. Some recent examples:

Stardock's Sins of a Solar Empire ships DRM-free, sells 500k units (back of napkin: 500k thru retail at revenue of ~$15$/unit = 7.5-10M, on a game with a $1M budget).

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Honoring the Legendary Customer

BoingBoing's linking to a cool story about how the makers of the Warhammer MMO are going to be erecting statues of the top players in the game world to honor their accomplishments.

Very cool indeed.

The thought exercise for the reader is this: if games did more gestures like this for customers, wouldn't that be a more-carrot-less-stick approach to the piracy problem? (Not unlike the personalized game idea I discussed a while back).

Monday, December 8, 2008

The Numbers

I was in SFO last week and hooked up for a conversation with a developer friend after my meetings, etc.

Among the many topics discussed, he raised some concerns about our industry's lack of "sharing" numbers. (Further conversation defined 'sharing' as 'widely available numbers through sharing/leaking/research/analysts/etc'). The conversation was precipitated from a discussion of Valve's disclosure of some numbers last week, the coverage of which didn't discuss some of the titles/genres that haven't fared as well on Steam (some titles that have been released on PSN, WiiWare, etc, are rumored to have fared far better than on XBLA's 

I pointed to VG Chartz as one example of how people are making some numbers available (whether released or reverse-engineered in the case of XBLA titles).

As a comparison point, he pointed me to the AWESOME site, The Numbers, which covers the movie industry and has just about every data point you'd ever want to pull.

He cited this as an example of a different attitude to sharing numbers within Hollywood. I beleived it was a symptom of supply and demand. Bigger industry, more demand for the numbers, more people figuring out ways to make money off covering that scene. I think we'll get there over time, though a change in attitude could possibly accelerate it.

Now, as a cleansing sorbet: a couple tidbits off this site:

For those that continue to beleive this crazy notion that games are bigger than hollywood (less beleived these days), I offer the following:

GTA 4 was projected to do as much as $400M. Some claim WoW as the biggest with perhaps $1B in lifetime revenue.

Titanic did $600M[corrected from B] in box office receipts. Wall-E did $112M... in DVD sales... in two weeks.

Oh, and the top grossing *franchise* of all time? James Bond at almost $5B dollars WW gross to date. Narrowly beating out Harry Potter and Star Wars. I did my bit by going to see Quantum of Solace last night.

We are clearly still a spec on Hollywood's radar. For now...

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Take a Mulligan?

From Gamasutra:

From VGChartz:
PacManCE units (lifetime to date):  329,698 
Galaga Legions units (lifetime to date):    43,510

"Uh. That didn't work out so great. Can we take a mulligan?"

I guess the interesting thing to ponder is whether, if publisher/MS were to give them the chance, would consumers be more or less interested in checking it out? At the very least it could be a unique marketing angle.