Sunday, January 22, 2012

Book Review: The Age of Turbulence

It took me a while to get through Alan Greenspan's The Age of Turbulence , but it was well worth it.

The book can be thought of as a combination of three things, in overlapping parts. First, Greenspan's autobiography, focusing on the parts of his upbringing and career that led to his chairing the federal reserve. Secondly, a modern history of economics, US economic policy and of the past seven presidential administrations with which he worked, and of his assessment of the state of international economics and its major players. Third, it serves as his assessment of where things are heading, reviewing the major drivers that in his view affect his forecast of the next twenty five years (through 2030 - the book was published in 2007)

One of the two things I liked most about the book as the behind-the-scenes look at his relationship with all the Presidents he got the chance to work with (Presidents Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, and Bush II). He cites Clinton as the smartest, followed by Nixon (though he found him paranoid and with a worrisome mean streak), and he had some fairly scathing words for G.W. Bush and his policies erasing the budget surpluses that Clinton had helped grow.

The other thing I liked most was that I found the book to be a good crash course in world economics, given from the perspective of someone who developed relationships with many of the world's leaders and/or their chief economists. His view of the future may or may not be correct (see criticisms below) but his view of the factors shaping the future comes from a perspective few others can offer and seems to stand up to scrutiny.

The major criticisms of the book that most seem to raise come from two perspectives. First, he's an unabashed believer in free-market capitalism, and many think his ideology clouds his judgement. This may be the case, but regardless I think he's able to see things with some degree of objectivity. He is above all data-driven, which in most cases keeps his ideology in check.

That said, the second major criticism of the book, related to the above, is that his belief in minimally-regulated free markets, was a major contributor to the housing crisis of recent years, and that even at the time of writing as it seemed the economy was on the edge of a cliff, he didn't see it. This may be true, but I saw a silver lining in this aspect. It's in this aspect of the book that you can see confirmation bias at work, and I found it a sobering reminder than even those with deep expertise are susceptible - perhaps even more so - to such failings.

It's a pretty hefty book to get through but I thought it worth doing so.

The Age of Turbulence: Adventures in a New World

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

SOPA Rhetoric

It's been interesting to watch the activism around the Stop Online Piracy Act, the entertainment industry lobby's latest ill-conceived attempt at legislating against the inevitable. As many have pointed out, SOPA and it's cousin PIPA threaten the open internet and won't do much to curb piracy anyhow. You should let your gov't representatives know how you feel about it, and also give to the EFF or other organizations doing something about it. You can do both here.

One thing I find interesting is the rhetoric that the entertainment lobby is using is pretty effectively (with ignorant folk like those in government anyway) to turn this into an "America vs THEM" story. The four words being used repeatedly are "foreign criminals" and "american jobs" - namely that the former are stealing the latter.

Now, to be fair, part of what these proposed actions do IS aimed at giving the industry some tools to combat piracy from foreign sites, but they can also be used against Americans. On the other side, the victims they aim to protect aren't all American. They are artists that may be from other countries, and the content owner companies who are multi-national anyway.

Anyhow, it's just remarkable how on-message they are with those four words, and that our government reps haven't seen right through the rhetoric.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Book Review: The Information Diet

Based on a friend's plugging it, I got pointed to The Information Diet, and thought it a suitable choice for first book of the year (well, among the first anyway, given that I have other ones going in parallel on paper/phone/audiobook).

I like the basic premise but thought the book was flawed in a couple of ways - so much so that I can't really recommend it, or at least caution would-be readers so they know what they are getting into.

The basic idea behind the book is that, given the quantity of information we have access to every day, it is easy to passively consume the easiest, but not necessarily the best, information. The author uses an analogy between modern food production giving us cheap, easy access to fat- and sugar-laden foods we crave, and, modern media production giving us cheap, easy access to titillating, easy-to-consume media. He argues that just as we encourage people to not eat too much, eat the right stuff, and understand where their food comes from, the same is true for the media as well.

I really like the analogy, but in stretching it out to a book, he both bloats it and stretches it beyond credibility. As well, he uses the book to cover a number of topics that stray from the "how" of information consumption and into advocating his view on politics. I agree with some of his views, but I just don't believe they belonged in this book.

Also, while there were some good tips on his "how" portion of the book, the author spent far too much time on the minutia of email filters, ad blockers, etc.

The Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Grading my 2011 predictions

It's always a good idea to go back and look at calls I made and see whether I was out to lunch or not. I'll keep these in brief and elaborate where necessary, so it may help to first read the original post if you are interested.

Grading: 0 if wrong, 1 if right, 0.5 if partly right, with explanation

  1. 0.5 "Bespoke design and devices of emotional attachement" - I predicted we'd see more Apple-like design and this would extend down to personalized design even to the individual level. I'm taking a half point on it because we did see some from the top down with all the laptop and camera manufacturers embracing design as a higher priority, and at the same time the bottom-up end of things like Kickstarter projects (e.g. pay a little more to get a custom color or your name engraved on it)
  2. 1.0 "Appstore fatigue" - I think I was correct on this one. I participate in a few 'behind the scenes' mail lists with developers, and many of them are comparing notes on whether an appstore for a given platform or device has proven itself before they leap in. I also get the sense that consumers are ho-hum about hearing that yet another device is including an app store with the same apps they've already bought elsewhere.
  3. 0.5 "Stereo3D will reach a point of undeniable lack of success" - Taking a half point here because there have been numerous pieces calling attention to the lack of success, but there's still an air of 'wait and see', plus some claims that they are doing well in some regions outside the US. US press seems to be acknowledging that the tech isn't moving people as expected (1, 2)
  4. 1.0 "3D Printing will take off" Though admittedly I was vague here by the "as measured by..." piece. Still shapeways, Tinkercad, MyRobotNation, 3D printable remote control cars, and numerous entries in the low-cost printer market... it's clearly a growing area of interest. Supposedly Makerbot has some big announcement coming next week at CES.
  5. 1.0 "Gamings Physical & Virtual Worlds meet" - This was already underway but has been making further progress. The examples I listed last year are still there, and new ones have been introduced, as well as existing toys getting a virtual element to them (e.g. American Girl has added an online component). Probably the best example I've seen to date is Skylanders, which my kids are currently obsessed with.
  6. 0.5 "Apple has a game platform" Apple more openly acknowledges games as a leading category in their app store, and is catering to developers with feature requests and the like. They still haven't directly taken on the consoles or handhelds with their core customers yet. 
  7. 1.0 "The Post-PC era will officially arrive". I think this is true - not in the sense that PCs are dead (they are doing great) - but in the sense that there are computing and media-consumption devices that are designed to function without PC tethering. tablets, phones, etc, seem to have made this transition.
  8. 0.5 "Brands-as-memes": There are cases of this happening, but Angry Birds is still so exceptional I can't point to it as a trend when the others are so much smaller.
  9. 0.0 "e-reader apps and services will see an explosion of innovation": I still think this could happen, but so far the leaders in e-reading have been pulling ahead based on vertical integration and digital distribution leadership (Amazon, Apple), not by building a more innovative reader. Shame.
  10. 1.0 "Cracks in gaming's walled garden": It's still early, but HTML5 games on iOS are a leading example here.
  11. 1.0. "HTML5 begets real apps": LucidChart, Tinkercad, many other examples.
  12. 0.0. "Android Consolidation": There hasn't been consolidation, and like I pointed out the app landscape while perhaps not bleak is at least very messy. Rather than consolidation though, we're seeing a few guys break out as leaders from the rest of the me-toos. e.g. Kindle Fire.
  13. 0.5. "Games market analysts will struggle to segment an amorphous landscape": I think I was right here, but in retrospect it's hard to see how to grade it.
  14. 1.0. "No official Kinect for PC": Development kits yes, but no consumer product.
  15. 1.0. "Tablets as a Producer Platform": We are seeing tablet-targeted text editors, photo apps, visualization apps, etc.
So, 10.5 out of 15. Not bad but could do better.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

2011 in Books

At the end of last year, I set a goal of getting through 36 books for this year. I exceeded that, completing 44.  They were pretty evenly divided among formats: 15 audio books, 12 e-books, and 17 in printed format. Interestingly though, the breakdown by format was not evenly distributed among topic areas. (e.g. all the fiction I read was in e-book format, where the bulk of the business books were in print). Of those I read in e-book format, most were consumed on the Kindle app on iPad, occasionally syncing and reading on iPhone.

For next year, I'm setting a goal of 48 books. I also want to plan my to-read pile a little better (e.g. some of the audio books I read were random picks at the library as I was under time pressure before a trip), and to be more willing to give up on books that aren't living up to expectations, rather than slogging through them.

As with last year, I'm grouping by topic. One asterisk for recommended books, two for highly recommended. Links are to my reviews, which in turn have links to Amazon or other place to buy.

The summary on recommendations is as follows: My favorite non-fiction book of the year is The Master Switch which I recommend everyone read, and Super Sad True Love Story is my fiction pick of the year. I'll also recommend Escape Velocity if you work at any company of over a hundred employees in which you want to effect change.


Graphic Novels