Archive for the ‘notes’ Category

November 28th, 2010 dotted line

Slack (2002), Tom DeMarco


  • Task switching has a penalty – get people to do only one thing.
  • Today’s knowledge worker is after personal growth – give them control slack – the opportunity to make their own mistakes, and so learn from them.
  • Full-time interactions consume brain power. The fewer the interaction lines radiating from a person, the less energy and overhead consumed on communication.
  • Having a gofer can save a LOT of energy and time.
  • Management is hard not because of the amount of work (a manager should not be doing work his reports are doing) but because the skills are inherently hard to master.
  • Empowerment means putting process ownership (and creation) into the hands of the people doing the work. The manager gives some control to the worker, who understands and appreciates the trust placed in him.
  • In the knowledge world, quality is inversely related to quantity.
  • Management metrics don’t tell the whole story, or quantify the entire benefit to the company.
  • People fear change because they are giving up the known/mastery for the unknown/novice-dom – remember, people identify themselves in part, through their work. Never belittle people who are going through this change.
  • Leaders acquire trust by giving trust.
  • Growth is the most opportune time to introduce change.
  • Trust and communication between middle management is essential for organizational reinvention.
  • Key lesson – today’s knowledge worker is after personal growth.

November 28th, 2010 dotted line

Everything Bad is Good for You (2006), Steven Johnson


Unlike media-created perception, Computer Games are complicated, and exhibit delayed gratification. So why would anyone want to play them?

  • Because they have a reward system (either clear, or intrinsic), and we are wired to seek reward.
  • They force you to make decisions, as you have to do in real life.
  • They force you to learn how to probe the game, so you understand how it works, in order to win. Isn’t this just another way of describing the scientific method? Create a hypothesis, test, feedback.
  • They force you to telescope – plan your tasks, and sequence them logically so you can correctly progress through the game.

The value of games is not their content (often childish, banal, or morally suspect), but their cognitive skill development.

Television has become more complex over time, demanding greater cognitive ability from its audience:

  • In dramas – multi-threaded plots, not talking down to the user, and not hiding the complexity of reality (life, professional jargon), and withholding information (planned ambiguity).
  • In comedies, increasingly self-referential (with punch lines set up many episodes ago), and to other cultural events.
  • In reality TV, watching contestants probe and navigate the complex high stakes environments, with an ever-changing rule book, and where success is most often predicated by social and emotional intelligence. Experiencing the thrill of seeing real, naked emotion.
  • Even talk shows do this, exercising the social muscle.

All this flows into real life, through coffee and water cooler talk, and through the explosion of online forums discussing these shows. Like games, the content may be lowbrow, but it is the collateral learning which matters.

The Internet is creating participatory, new interfaces, and new channels for social interaction.

Films follow the increasing complexity of TV. To fairly compare the TV and movies of yesteryear with today’s, means comparing like with like – i.e. comparing crap with crap. For example, Fear Factor and The Love Boat – make no mistake, there will always be crap, but today’s crap is magnitudes better than yesteryear’s.

Key lesson – don’t worry too much about the changing social and entertainment fabric of today’s information age – we are becoming smarter, and our cognitive abilities are increasing. Much of this is due to the increasing cognitive demands from the environment we are now in, and the collateral learning which is a consequence of this.

November 28th, 2010 dotted line

Iconoclast (2008), Gregory Berns


An iconoclast breaks away from the status quo, and achieves his status by being, seeing and doing differently, and bringing into being some disruptive innovation. To be an iconoclast:

  • Look at new things to perceive old ones differently – you can do this by being in new environments, or being with new people. Our brain rigidly categorizes for efficiency in processing inputs, and so we need to shake the perceptual system out of its categories. Categories are death to imagination.
  • Stress – transform fear into more productive emotions, such as anger. Fear distorts perception. The pressure to conform (especially when among strangers) is because of fear of social isolation, and fear of looking stupid.

There are three steps to achieving successful iconoclast status:

  1. See differently – see things as they are, not as others do. Create a new idea / vision.
  2. Face down fear, so it doesn’t influence your decisions. Be brave enough to stand out.
  3. Social network so others (enough people and the right people) see the way you do. Social intelligence, networking and connectedness are crucial to succeeding – they help you build reputation, experience and eventually, productivity. Familiarity quiets fear (in others).

Finally, in order to see differently, you could consider drugs. The SSRIs and betablockers inhibit fear and anxiety, and have few side effects. Also the hormone oxytocin has been shown to increase social bonding and social intelligence.

Key lessons – see differently, face down fear, and social network.

November 28th, 2010 dotted line

Brain Rules (2008), John Medina


  1. Exercise during the day improves cognitive ability. It halves the chance of mild dementia, and reduces by 60% risk of Alzheimer’s. This underscores the importance of Physical Education in school.
  2. The brain improvises on a database (knowledge store).
  3. Individual brains develop differently on different time tables, based on different life experiences. Your brain rewires itself based on different experiences in life.
  4. The more attention your brain pays to a given stimulus, the more elaborately the information will be encoded and retained. Emotionally charged stimuli are the most memorable. Association between different data points aids memory, ie. hierarchy, which means put concepts / meaning before details. Have a 10 minute check out rule in lectures / learning. The brain can’t multitask – pay actual attention to many things at once.
  5. Spaced (over time – meaning not too often) and varied repetition enhances remembering. Forgetting allows prioritization.
  6. The brain is active during sleep; only 20% of sleep is non-REM. It is an opportunity for offline processing and furious memory creation.
    1. Sleep patterns differ from person to person – I am active in the mid-morning, and in the middle of the night. Each person has a sleep archetype, or chrono-type – ie. early, late or middle. For many people, a 30 minute nap during the day (especially the mid-afternoon siesta) improves performance.
    2. Sleep aids creativity, while sleep loss ages the body, and also causes mind loss.
  7. Stress (overload – some stress is good) causes a sense of helplessness, and lack of control. Chronic, prolonged stress / cortisol kills brain cells.
    1. Depression deregulates the thought process. Stress prevents learning and brain function – hence, your home and personal life will affect your work and school performance.
    2. Control is key – if I have control in my personal life, I can better insulate myself from stress caused by lack of control at work. Marriage success is often about limiting the severity and frequency of hostile interactions.
  8. Stimulation, especially multi-sense stimulation, including the rarer touch and smell stimulation, can increase creativity.

Key lessons – exercise regularly, have a satisfying and full personal life to manage stress, and make sure you get enough sleep at the right times. To remember important things in your life, encode them emotionally and deliberately.

November 21st, 2010 dotted line

Inside Job (2011), Charles Ferguson

The two defining world events of the last decade have been 9-11 and the ensuing Iraqi occupation, and the global financial crisis of 2008 – for which the last word has still to be written. Filmmaker Charles Ferguson may have created the definitive documentary film accounts for both – in 2008, No End in Sight provided a damning analysis of the US-Iraqi occupation and subsequent insurgency, and his latest film, Inside Job, takes on the failure of the US financial industry.

As he did with No End in Sight, Ferguson provides a well paced and strikingly clear account of the causes and events leading up to 2008, and parades before us a gallery of villains and players (some of whom he interviews, rendering quite uncomfortable under his grilling in the process), most of whom still remain in key decision making positions. You’ll come away with an understanding of how all this happened; anger that while catastrophe has been averted for now, things really haven’t changed; and an insight into the scale of the problem.

The key messages:

  • the financial industry is too powerful, and wields disproportionate influence on government (lobbyists in general, wield too much power);
  • this allows them to heavily influence legislation of their industry, including the financial deregulation which laid the groundwork for the events of 2008;
  • deregulation leads to an industry where conflict of interest is legalised, and where the capitalist ethos, self-interest and short term gains thrive and are encouraged.

One solution appears to be greater regulation to prevent conflicts of interest, but given the power the financial industry currently wields, the chances of this happening any time soon are low.

October 17th, 2010 dotted line

No End in Sight (2008), Charles Ferguson

Also on Netflix Instant.

The most surprising thing about this film for me – in Charles Ferguson’s narrative, how seemingly clear and direct the causes were for the current tragedy that is Iraq – egregious, depressingly mundane, and avoidable. The initial post-invasion goodwill was rapidly, almost systematically dismantled and destroyed, creating an environment for insurgency.

The mistakes made provide learnings which can also be applied to any undertaking where a number of people are involved, and planning is needed.

  1. Insufficient (and bad) planning. An example: martial law was not immediately established, with no good reason for this other than senior leadership thinking it wasn’t necessary. This left a void for law, order and security, which was quickly filled by religious extremist groups.
  2. Advice of experts and people on the ground was ignored. During the planning stage, General Shinseki’s recommended number of troops for the occupation was questioned and dismissed, even though he had direct and recent experience with post-war occupation – and he was later proven right.
  3. People were not treated with dignity. The Iraqi army was dismissed, as well as the incumbent government, completely disregarding people’s basic needs – an opportunity to make a living with respect and dignity. The Green Zone post-invasion immediately created a clear “us and them” environment.
  4. Insufficient communication, both within senior leadership and through the entire organization, and among the key leaders, a general lack of critical thinking and thoughtfulness.
  5. No desire to seek out differing opinions, or speak with others to build consensus and buy-in. Not toeing the company line meant being removed from your position, eventually resulting in an organization of yes men – nepotism in government.

October 17th, 2010 dotted line

I Live in the Future (2010), Nick Bilton

Bilton has a good thesis, one which isn’t fully fleshed out until the end of the book. “We are all storytellers”. That’s what matters. At the heart of the digital revolution is simply the desire to find the best ways to consume and create our stories.


Google calls it “dog-fooding” – engineers using their own product (eg. Gmail). When creators choose not to use their own product, you know there’s a problem. Bilton himself, an editor at the NY Times, canceled his paper subscription – a clear sign things weren’t well in the newspaper business.

Storytelling is Nick’s common thread through his career, the common link through his forays into advertising, writing, photography, video, programming, UI design, etc. I suspect it could be mine too.

One of the reasons I like SF so much – it’s a place on the cutting edge of tech change, and tech change is a key driving force behind today’s media and social change. For a storyteller, this is unbearably compelling. Access is the key, and why China and other authoritarian countries are trying to control access to the Internet.

Digital is the distribution channel for content today, and its cost of delivery is virtually negligible. This is a wrenching change for many knowledge industries.

Nick’s introduction gives a summary at the chapter level of the entire book, something I’ve seen in other books of the same ilk.

Reporting (aka journalism)! Something I’d like to look at more.

“Morality sherrifs” (in his chapter on the porn industry).

Beginning a story without seeming to, so the flow of thought isn’t broken. I hate it when an author telegraphs this – it feels like they’re making you wait before they make their real point.

There is a long tail even in the porn business (niche tastes). Apparently this is where revenue is these days – these consumers will pay if the price is reasonable.

Two strategies for fighting the porn pirates without taking them to court (legal fees can cripple a fledgling business, and if you can’t fight ’em..) – 1) Upload preview clips from new, upcoming content to promote them, 2) post high quality clips for films which have low quality bootleg versions, to show consumers what they’re missing out on.

Gawker has a family of niche-targeted blogs, which are doing very well.

Niche, quality, immediacy and price. To that, add an experience for the consumer, whether its through social media to build a relationship with the customer, or live concerts.

The book is itself the story of the months Bilton spent doing the research for it. A person and personality comes through his writing, which makes the experience enjoyable.

When I have time (30 minutes+), I often choose long form reading (eg. a New Yorker article). However, in most cases I have less time than that, and prefer the immediacy and lower time requirements of RSS, Twitter, news articles, etc.

Compulsive consumption is a manifestation of “an effort to not miss anything”. The solution for this is what Bilton calls “anchoring communites”, which help him navigate the information flood. My term – “filters”. However, I can appreciate the reference to community – I feel I’m getting to know the people I follow on Twitter – sportsguy33, kottke, etc. Note that even filters are getting overloaded these days, and you could easily see filters on top of filters.

We have different relationships and dynamics between online and real-life friends, and it makes sense that the way we engage and treat them is different too.

Tipping points for adoption are different for everyone. For me, I got the iPad because it was unlocked, unlike the iPhone, which requires a contract. I finally started using Twitter because an iPad app (the official Twitter client) came out whose UI was universally praised.

Brands sell trust. These days, more individuals are becoming brands unto themselves. Eg. I trust Mick LaSalle’s movie recommendations, and so he is one of my filters.

Following. Often you just go with the group because you have no set agenda – if someone has more knowledge and starts moving with purpose, the group will follow.

“We were never born to read” – Proust. Similarly, our brains will also adapt to the needs of the new information age.

FPS games don’t work for me, because mastery of the interface (controller) hinders me. If there was a more intuitive interface (Wii, Natal), I would be more likely to enjoy the gaming experience.

A campfire experience (movies, concerts, etc.) – a group of people sharing a realtime experience – has now evolved to an experience shared in bits, and in non-realtime (sharing, social sites, etc.).

Price, quality, timeliness (current, latest, can purchase immediately), experience (which must be priced correctly). Price and fairness – many consumers will happily pay (the success of iTunes) if the price is just and commensurate with the experience. If pricing is egregiously high – eg. the WSJ annual subscription of $99 – they will stay away in droves.

Instapaper subverts the pay mechanism of eReaders. Instead of paying a subscription to read the New Yorker in book form, I use my iPad and Instapaper to download articles (the process of marking and saving articles is painless, which is key) and read them in a book format, a very similar experience, for free.

Digital speed is fast. It stands to reason that change also takes place quickly in this realm.

I am at the center of my digital world.

Idea: charge for personalization (ie. on the NY Times site), and price it appropriately.

Teenagers and young adults represent the hotbed and laboratory of change today – a dream anthropological field experiment if they happen to be your target audience.

“Brain research has been catapulted into the mainstream.”

Being able to tune out distractions, immersion, and control over the process, are hugely important in experiencing a movie in an enjoyable way – people are able to enjoy films on their iPods.

Some thoughts at the end of the book.

Stories and people drive human interaction, engagement and relationships (though not all stories are equally important). Digital media is evolving at a rapid and fascinating rate. Technology is providing ever increasing opportunities for individuals everywhere to reach and touch others with their stories.