Saturday, December 31, 2011

Book Review: The Technician

I was up until 2am last night, unable to put down my friend Casey Muratori's new book, The Technician.

It's a really fun and quick read, with a little something for everyone. It mixes together equal parts action, comedy, tear-jerking and interesting characters and still manages to have something to say.

The book introduces us to Michael, a government operative who is very good at what he does, which is mostly killing people. Michael is good at what he does because he has an Aspergers-like attention to detail coupled with a detachment from any level of connection with the people around him (especially those he's putting bullets in).

While Michael doesn't care much for people, he cares very much for his collection of cats. This becomes a problem because he can't be trotting around the globe assassinating people if he needs to be home in time to give his cats their specific regimen of meds and vittles.

In order to keep Michael productively destructive, the government agrees to hire him an assistant to help care for his cats. There's a good bit of hilarity here when the government automatons are thrown out of their comfort zone in doing something as routine as hiring a pet-sitter.

The fun really gets going when Michael decides that if an assistant is ok, then there's no reason that he can't commandeer other government resources for the purpose of helping local strays, whether it be night-vision googles, or, say, a spy satellite.

The book will produce both laughs and tears, and is a page turner in both cases. Casey uses the backdrop to make a point about the way we treat both people and animals, and as an indictment of all who justify doing things they believe are morally wrong by playing the role of 'small cog in a big machine' - the key assertion being that we always have a choice.

The Technician

As an aside, I can't help but recall a conversation Casey and I had a few years back while I was doing XBLA business development at Microsoft and he discussing an upcoming indie game project. We were discussing a few of the changes to the distribution terms that Casey had heard were going into effect, and I was saying while I didn't like them, the decision had been made above my head and that I didn't have a choice in the matter. Can you guess what he told me?

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Book Review: Paintwork

Paintwork was a quick fun read. It's a collection of three loosely related novellas stories, all of which are science fiction with an augmented reality premise.

The first story, for which the book is named, follows a near-future graffiti artist who tags corporate AR billboards with his own custom QR codes, overwriting advertising with custom AR artwork. All is fine until someone starts tagging his works within minutes of his doing so, making him wonder if it's an inside job from within the graffiti community.

The second story, called Paparazzi, is a story about gaming culture and celebrity, with a unique take on gold-farming, and some AR stuff thrown in for good measure. It had an interesting twist at the end that made it's premise quite unique, but I found it the weakest of the three stories.

The third story, Havana Augmented, was a real gem. The story centers on some Cuba-based gamer/hacker types who, without legitimate access to technology or game content, hack their own black-market access to leading MMOs. In the process, they innovate in ways the game authors never imagined, open Cuba to investment capital interests, and go on to wage augmented-reality virtual war in the streets of Havana. I loved the vivid picture the author painted and where he ended up taking the story.

This is great near-term sci-fi, with thought provoking near-future pictures of what some of these technologies may bring, combined with action-packed stories with surprising twists.


Saturday, December 24, 2011

Book Review: Escape Velocity

This was one of my favorite business books of the year. I've been a disciple of Geoffrey Moore ever since reading Crossing the Chasm and the fantastic Inside the Tornado. Moore is skilled at distilling complex machinations of markets and organizations, getting them down to their fundamental systems, and then explaining those in crystal clear form.

In Escape Velocity: Free Your Company's Future from the Pull of the Past, he turns his attention to the question of why companies are unable to innovate, arguing that a major factor is their being trapped by the pull of their past and current product efforts. He argues that the way budgeting & planning work at most large organizations, headcount & spending are allocated among existing efforts first, and that afterward anything left for innovating in new areas is meager at best. Having worked at a couple such companies, I was struck by how accurately he portrayed the details of this process and problem.

Moore goes on to propose a framework for tackling this problem in four parts.

First, he describes this budgeting dilemma and proposes that the key areas for innovation, once identified, get planned for outside of the rest of the budget planning process, and that the company make highly assymetrical bets on these in order to acheive 'escape velocity'.

Next he provides a framework for identifying company and competitor areas of strength in a hierarchy of domains of category power, company power, market power, offer power. I found this framework useful for discussion of competitor offerings. He makes the case that your breakthrough will come from focusing on a key differentiator in one of these domains, and identifying which is key.

He then goes on to provide a really useful model for categorizing types of innovation, breaking things into differentiation vs neutralization (innovation efforts in matching competitor offerings) vs efficiency vs waste (innovation efforts spend in areas that won't be leveraged or that don't align with the one area you've picked to differentiate). This framework too, I found really useful, and intend to employ it at work.

Finally, he presents a well structured blueprint for how to go put all this into action. He does so for both volume-operation vs service-oriented businesses (the tactics are different for each). His model suggests that there are three key phases for these efforts (invention, deployment, and optimization), and that the efforts for each should be handled by completely different management teams with different skill sets. He also outlines the structure for a transition team and process to move the product efforts between these three phases.

Throughout the whole book there are many, many case examples, and I liked that - with one exception - he called upon himself to avoid the temptation of using Apple in case examples (too easy).

Moore has an uncanny ability for structuring order out of the chaos that exists in high tech business. This is a masterwork, and a must-read for anyone in management or planning at any company of a few hundred employees or greater. However, even those other roles or at small companies will, I think they'll get a lot out of the framework tools for evaluating their place in the market, or their competitors. I highly recommend this book.

Escape Velocity: Free Your Company's Future from the Pull of the Past

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Book Review: The Filter Bubble

I got turned onto The Filter Bubble after viewing the author's TED talk on the same subject.

The TED talk gives you main idea, and that's probably sufficient. The book dives into a lot of interesting detail, some of which isn't exactly related to the core thesis, and that's part of the problem I had with it. The idea is sound but the book is a somewhat meandering exploration of the idea... along with other things the author is interested in but that are unrelated.

The thesis is as follows: In order to better serve users, search providers, social networking sites, and other information sources are providing personalized data feeds - feeds tuned to their preferences. As these become our primary sources of information, it results in a feedback loop where we only see what we like, and what we see influences what we like. He borrows danah boyd's analogy of an all-sugar-and-fat diet (it might be what you crave, but it's not good for you), encouraging us to think about ways to eat our digital veggies.

This is not new of course. The advent of television brought about similar paranoia. However, there's no denying that it's true to some degree and the fact that it can be dialed in to each individual user makes it credible. The paranoia is seductive to give into. Even if you don't there's some interesting stuff in the book, though there are also some flaws.


  • I learned a lot about how modern internet advertising & site personalization work. I'd heard of companies like Axiom but didn't know what they do.
  • The book does a good job painting a picture of some possible outcomes of personalized search and personalized advertising (e.g. think of tailored political ads, for example, and the complexities of holding them accountable to telling the truth).
  • He does a good job explaining some basic concepts around programming and technology in layman's terms. Not much use to me, but I might think of recommending it more easily to a relative or non-techie friend.
  • The author delves into a lot of other areas having little to do with 'filter bubbles'.
  • Those areas that do are taken too far, and consist mostly of his own 'what ifs', rather than consulting research and/or data on the subject.
  • The solutions proposed are weak. Telling people they should try to consume responsibly, out-smart the personalization-bots, etc, all seem like they'll fail and/or fall of deaf ears. Suggesting maybe there could be an ombudsman or some regulation seems like a bit of a cop out without proposing how those might work.

I guess I'd say most will be better off watching the TED talk to get the basic idea, and then reading the book only if they want see how deep the rat-hole goes.

The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding From You

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Book Review: The Age of Gold

I recently got through the audio book version of The Age of Gold: The California Gold Rush and the New American Dream, and while it started out a little slow, it picked up partway through and there were a couple things I really enjoyed about it.

The book is a history of the California gold rush, starting with John Marshall's initial discovery in 1848, through the goldrush itself, and through to the construction of the railways connecting east and west coasts. The book presents the history by following several individual's stories, some of whom came overland, some of whom came by ship, crossing at the Panamanian isthmus. It ends by telling what became of all those individuals, ranging from cases where they ended up destitute to cases where they went on found lasting legacies (e.g. Leland Stanford went from mining supply sales to railroad tycoon to founder of Stanford University)

The stories the book tells have numerous humorous anecdotes and interesting factoids. For example, when mining companies started using nitro glycerin to blast through rock, the used Wells Fargo to ship it to them - only they didn't tell them WHAT was in the boxes they were shipping. After a few sudden disappearances of post offices, they decided it might be a good idea to disclose the contents.

What I liked best about it was that it connected various other pieces of American history that I've read about elsewhere. From some of the 49-ers following the Oregon trail, to the part California played in funding part of Lincoln's efforts in the civil war, to role the gold rush would have in America's support for the gold standard, for me this book was like that piece of the jigsaw puzzle that lets you connect two large patches you've been working on in isolation.

Finally, the author makes the argument in the end, somewhat convincingly, that the gold rush was a major contributor in forging the entrepreneurial spirit that would see America become the world's leading economy in the following fifty years.

The Age of Gold: The California Gold Rush and the New American Dream