Archive for the 'review' Category

Monday, May 30th, 2011

Good to Great

One book that Ken Bado, the MarkLogic President and CEO, likes to talk about is Good to Great, (subtitled why some companies make the leap… and others don’t), a result of many man-years of meticulous research.

There’s plenty to think about in this book. It talks about the qualities of a “level 5” executive: the best have a paradoxical mixture of personal humility and iron will. It talks about getting the right people on the bus, and only then deciding where the bus is going. It talks about a culture where brutal facts surfacing is the normal and expected behavior, resulting in a culture of both discipline and faith in the future. Perhaps the key point of the book is the venn diagram that depicts “great” companies as focusing on the intersection of passion, what they can be the best at in the world, and what drives their economic engine.

The structure of the book is based on 11 key companies that passed several rigorous metrics, including an at-least-15-year period of good financial performance, followed by a turning point and an at-least-15-year period of greatness, that is, returns well above the general and industry markets. (Perhaps unfairly, companies that were in the ‘great’ bucket continuously, with no periods of merely ‘good’ performance, were excluded).

Two of the companies in the list: Fannie Mae and Wells Fargo, raised the eyebrows of this fresh reader. Both of them have been prominently in the headlines in the last few years, and not in a good way. In particular the depictions of Wells Fargo struggling with deregulation in the 80s seem galling to read with the hindsight of going through the Great Recession. Circuit City, another of the good-to-great companies, declared bankruptcy in 2009. The book itself cautions about tough times at Gillette and Nucor in the Epilogue section.

I bring this out not to be negative, but to emphasize that this is a soft discipline, not science. If there are companies that have consistently beat the market from the 80s until today with no serious hiccups, that would be truly remarkable. But there’s lots of hidden variables, the system is chaotic, and mere financial numbers are too shallow a measure by which to measure greatness. A company that can truly follow these principles will almost certainly do better than one that doesn’t. Just look at Yahoo for a negative example.

In particular, I’m thinking the three circles are a good way to approach life, though I sincerely hope an individual’s third circle isn’t about optimizing finances. What can you be the best in the world at, have pasion for, and drive your personal satisfaction engine? Maybe that would be a good area to focus your limited resources on. -m

Monday, April 19th, 2010

The Rick Wakeman clause?

Phrase seen in this article about whether video games are art, and Roger Ebert’s opinions thereon.

“Video games by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature…”

Hmm, Mr. Ebert doesn’t seem to be up on the concept of hypertext, which has manifold connections with cinema. See for instance the scholarly paper Cinematic Paradigms for Hypertext. In fact, making a hypertext or branching narrative requires even greater amounts of authorial skill.

But I’m still curious, what is the Rick Wakeman clause? From where did that term originate? -m

Monday, December 21st, 2009

Failure as the secret to success

Excellent article in Wired, perhaps a good explanation of my career. :-)

Dunbar observed that the skeptical (and sometimes heated) questions asked during a group session frequently triggered breakthroughs, as the scientists were forced to reconsider data they’d previously ignored.

Which sounds like a fairly typical spec review at Mark Logic. Hint: we’re hiring–email me.

-m

Wednesday, June 10th, 2009

The Inmates are Running the Asylum: review and RFE

The central thesis of The Inmates are Running the Asylum by Alan Cooper is dead on: engineers get too wrapped up in their own worlds, and left entirely to their own whims can easily make a product incomprehensible to ordinary folks. For this reason alone, it’s worth reading.

But I do question parts of his thesis. He (with tongue in cheek) posits the existence of another species of human, called Homo Logicus. Stepping on to an airplane, Homo Logicus turns left into the cockpit with a million buttons but ultimate control over every aspect of the plane. Regular Homo Sapiens, on the other hand, turn right and tuck themselves into a chair–no control but at least they can relax.

But if there was only one “species” of Homo Logicus, members (like me) would never experience usability issues in software created by fellow Logicians. But ordinary fax machines give me fits. The touch-screen copier at work instills dread in my heart. And the software I need to use to file expense reports–written by enterprise software geeks probably very similar to me–is a usability nightmare. Words fail me in expressing my disdain for this steaming heap of fail.

The book is sub-titled “Why High-Tech Products Drive Us Crazy”, but one doesn’t have to look very far to find similar usability bugs in the low-tech world. Seth Godin, for example, likes to talk about different things in life that Just Don’t Work, along with reasons why. Some examples:

  • airport cab stand (75 cabs, 75 people, and it takes an hour)
  • “don’t operate heavy machinery” warning on dog’s prescription medicine
  • excessive fine print on liability agreements–intentionally hard to read and figure out
  • official “Vote for Pedro” shirts that look nothing like the ones in the movie
  • more examples on the web site

If anything, I think Cooper’s work doesn’t go far enough. It is relatively short on good examples, stretching out only four examples over four chapters. If properly-designed software is so hard to come up with examples of, then there are bigger problems in play (that would need to be dealt with by something more manifesto than book).

The book now 5 years old. Perhaps it’s time for an update. Particularly in the world of web software, lots has happend in 5 years. Flickr. Gmail. Yahoo Pipes. Google Docs. Even SearchMonkey. Instead of focusing on pointing at crappy software, I’d like to see more emphasis on properly-done interfaces. More delving into nuance, and common factors behind why both high-tech and low-tech products miss the mark.

But maybe that’s just me. -m

Saturday, March 21st, 2009

Netflix watch: Taming of the Shrew available instantly

The 1980 BBC version with John Cleese. Available for instant watching, but will go away on April 01. Apparently lots of BBC stuff is supposedly going away soon. (I’ve never linked to a Netflix title before, let me know if it doesn’t work) -m

Sunday, March 23rd, 2008

Review: Little Brother

(sick again…at least I get to catch up on my reading)

Something has always puzzled me: I’ve never solidly connected with a Cory Doctorow story. It’s baffling; we’re practically brothers-in-geekdom. Most every nonfiction thing I read from Cory leaves me nodding in agreement. If we met, we’d have no trouble talking for hours about metacrap, free content licenses, and crypto. But for some reason, Cory’s fiction–short story or freely-downloadable-novel–hasn’t clicked with my peculiar mind.

Until now, that is. I emailed Cory asking him for a prerelease copy of Little Brother, in return for an honest review here. He was happy to oblige. The story pulled me in fast and hard, and by the time it was over, I wished there was more to the tale. I’d call that “solidly connecting”. :-)

The story is aimed at high-school-aged kids, and naturally features a cast of high-school-aged protagonists. This means that I’m quite outside the target audience, so your opinions might vary. Too many reviews fall into plot synopsis mode here, so I’ll try to avoid it. Suffice it to say that the story revolves around a close group of teens who get accused of involvement in a bigger-than-911 plot, and quietly fight back against the resulting oppression.

The tale has a lot of (and AFAIK this is a freshly minted word) techsposition. Like any exposition, it is a risky thing to do as a writer, since it halts the forward momentum of your story. It’s doubly hard to stop to explain technical details. Blocks of techsposition were heavy enough to throw me out of the story a few times. There were cases where the plot wouldn’t have suffered by glossing over some details. On the other hand, these not-quite-asides are about real-world (as opposed to fictional) technology, so definitely have some benefit for readers.

The story has a strong message, but it gets spread a little thick toward the middle. All the clever things the kids think to do happen fairly early in the story, but the plot keeps rolling along. There’s also a few too many instances of the really-smart teen who has outwitted or escaped from the clutches of The Man, just in time to appear in the action.

There’s a number of characters in the story, with complex interactions among them.  The main characters are solid, believable, and fully-realized. In fact, I’d point to the characterization as the main that kept me up late reading.

Little Brother comes out the end of April, both in print and freely downloadable. If you’re allowed to choose your own reading material, you might decide it’s worth a look. -m