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How We Decide, by Jonah Lehrer

Thursday, April 1st, 2010

Amazon link

I picked this up from the library, as yet another in the recent series of books I’ve been reading that reinforce my own biases. Overall, I liked it – I knew most of the patterns in cognition that the book describes, but it summarized them nicely with good anecdotes.

One standard model of decision-making is that we are rational beings. We examine all of our options, we think through the consequences of making a decision, we weigh the costs and benefits, and then we decide. Philosophers like Descartes think that this rational mind is what separates us from other species (“I think, therefore I am”).

Another model is that of the unconscious mind, as popularized in recent books like Sources of Power and Blink. The theory here is that our brains have evolved over millenia to have an enormous amount of processing power that is not consciously accessible, and sometimes we have to trust the “intuition” that the unconscious mind is giving us.

Lehrer’s book reviews the strengths and weaknesses of each of these cognition models to help people understand when it’s appropriate to use each model.

The rational conscious mind is limited in power – we’ve all heard the idea that we can only keep 7 information nuggets in our brain at a time. It’s a bandwidth-limited single processor (one estimate is that it processes at 20 bits/second). Its strengths are that it can logically process new situations, override our kneejerk impulses that may not be appropriate to the situation, and come up with responses that have not been tried before. Also, decisions made using the rational path are easy to explain, as they are based in logic. Its weaknesses are that it is slow and has limited capacity (check out his anecdote on self-control when trying to remember too many things), and therefore works best on well-defined problems with only a few dimensions to consider.

The unconscious brain is in many ways the opposite of the rational brain. It is a parallel processor with enormous capacity that can optimize decisions among many conflicting dimensions. It is also extremely fast – it works by training neural circuits to recognize previously seen situations and respond quickly without involving the conscious mind. When we are developing our 10,000 hours of expertise, we are building the necessary neural pathways in the unconscious brain (what Daniel Coyle says are myelin sheaths).

However, the unconscious brain does not deal well with novel situations, as it may seize on an already-trained, but inappropriate, response. It is also unreliable in situations where previously seen inputs have different outcomes because the training doesn’t work – Lehrer cites slot machines as an example of the unconscious brain desperately trying to find patterns when none exist. One final weakness is that the decisions made by the unconscious brain are difficult to explain, as they are expressed through emotions we feel and so we can’t analyze the decisions rationally.

Lehrer describes many situations when the two minds are used inappropriately. For instance, complex multivariable problems can not be answered by pure reason (Lehrer cites the example of a man who lost his emotional capacity after a brain tumor was cut out, and was completely unable to make normal life decisions). In fact, if we try to attack such problems with the rational brain, we make poorer choices because we seize on variables that are easy to explain rationally rather than considering all of the possible benefits (Lehrer cites an amusing study where undergrads had to choose a poster to take home; those that had to give a reason for choosing a poster ended up choosing posters they were less happy with compared to the ones that just chose a poster). Lehrer suggests that the best strategy when confronting a complex decision with many variables is to study it carefully to load all of the information into our unconscious brain, and then go do something else (take a walk, go for a driver) while the unconscious brain processes that information. This idea is reflected in the standard trope that the best ideas come in the shower.

However, the unconscious brain only works well in repeatable situations where it can try out different responses to the same set of inputs and encode what works into the neural pathways. In novel situations, we can’t trust our instincts and have to slow down and engage the conscious brain. Lehrer tells the story of a team fighting a forest fire when the wind shifted unexpectedly and came towards them. The leader realized the fire was going to overtake him before he could get to safety, stopped running, thought for a second, and then set his own fire to create an already burned spot, which he then stepped into so that the forest fire would go around him. Most of his team was lost because they were only listening to their emotional brains telling them to run from the fire.

I liked the book’s balance between the “Blink” theory of trust your instincts and the “Descartes” theory of following reason. Both methods of cognition have advantages and disadvantages, and the best decisions will be made by taking those strengths and weaknesses into account. In some sense, the two brains are mental tools, and it’s up to us to understand when it’s appropriate to use each tool.

Chief Culture Officer, by Grant McCracken

Wednesday, February 10th, 2010

Amazon link

I have been a fan of Grant McCracken’s for several years now, so I was eagerly awaiting his new book, Chief Culture Officer. Note that I may be slightly biased in this review, as Grant mentions me in the book as a potential CCO candidate.

Chief Culture Officer is McCracken’s manifesto of how and why culture matters to the corporation. He starts the book with stories like Levi’s missing a billion dollar opportunity in the mid-90s because they didn’t see the hip-hop trend and therefore didn’t understand why anybody would want baggy jeans. Another example is Steve Jobs revolutionizing industry after industry by leading a new wave of culture e.g. using iTunes and the iPod to create an individual song a la carte option in the music industry so people could create their own mixes. Or Geoffrey Frost at Motorola creating an enormous amount of value with the Razr.

McCracken then dives into several of the trends that have been taking place over the last few decades:

  • Culture fast and slow – fast culture is the bleeding edge, particularly notable in the fashion and design industries where “that’s so five minutes ago” is a meaningful insult. Slow culture is represented by less flashy, more subtle trends, like how we think about our food, or how homes are changing to reflect updated needs.
  • Status and cool – status is Victorian and high culture – it’s about aspiring to the One True set of status indicators like the luxury car, an appreciation of art and opera, etc. Cool is represented by outsiders such as the beats – it’s doing what the hip kids are doing rather than conforming to society’s expectations. I liked McCracken’s observation that the two trends, at odds throughout the twentieth century, have now fused into an interesting hybrid where “cool” avant-garde liberties in personal expression are eventually co-opted into the social order of “status” (shades of learn and latch).
  • Producers and consumers – the age of mass media was about few producers and millions of consumers. We have moved towards a many-to-many fragmented culture, as everybody now has the tools of production. That changes our entire relationship to media, both as producers and consumers.

One insight I particularly liked was that “Convergence culture is fleeting. But it supplies order, and for the CCO this order is a gift”. Seeing the right cultural trend splits the world in a useful way and illuminates events by giving a framework through which to view them. It gives us a meaningful story by which we can interpret what’s happening, and testable hypotheses as to what will happen next. McCracken suggests we should be tracking the trends that we think are happening and revisit those predictions, so that we can learn from our mistakes (I would note that blogs are a particularly good way to track such thoughts).

How does the CCO figure out which are the next meaningful trends, and which are fads that will fade away? They need to monitor magazines, TV shows, internet forums – one person can’t do it all, so how do we collaborate? McCracken suggests having a group of advisors/editors who can collectively share tidbits (I would suggest that Twitter can be useful for this purpose if following the right set of people). And once potential trends of interest are identified, how do we convert those into actionable insights? McCracken suggests that the CCO needs to champion efforts in the corporation that catch the rising wave, and fight back against the ones on the subsiding ones.

Another insight I liked was the corporations breathe culture in and out – “the corporation is not just an economic actor, it is also a social and a cultural one.” Brands are not imposed on people; instead, brands only derive meaning from how people incorporate brands into their self-story. Brands must spark a recognition within the consumer that the brand is a meaningful expression of identity. For instance, cars are a quintessential expression of identity, ranging from muscle cars, hybrids, or minivans. In this vision, brands that aren’t co-opted and multiplied by their users wither away and die.

McCracken finishes up with a chapter on the nitty-gritty of how to observe and monitor culture, including an appendix with “A Tool Kit for the Rising CCO”, which includes recommendations for magazines, TV, events, people, books, etc. His ethnographic perspective emphasizes the act of noticing, both observing a behavior and then explaining it with a story. Part of the challenge of noticing is keeping an open mind. If you go in with an opinion, you’ll fit your observations into that opinion – you have to pay attention what is actually happening and willing to follow up on surprising inconsistencies. The ethnographer is actively engaged, “capturing how and why the assumptions in this life go together, or feel they do”.

I like McCracken’s premise that understanding cultural trends is vital to corporations that want to act effectively in this world. And as usual, I love his insights into our culture – he provides useful stories for understanding what is going on around us. This is the kind of book that is easy to read, but has meaning that is only slowly percolating into how I think. Good stuff.

P.S. As mentioned previously, McCracken is holding a Chief Culture Officer Boot Camp this Saturday in New York. I’m excited to attend, and will report back with my notes and observations afterwards.

The Adventures of Johnny Bunko, by Daniel Pink

Friday, February 5th, 2010

Book website
Amazon link

Dan Pink’s book Drive was good, so I also picked up this book from the library, subtitled “The last career guide you’ll ever need”. It’s written in the style of manga (Japanese comics), and can be read in half an hour, but offers solid advice on career management.

Here are the bullet points it hits:

  1. There is no plan – don’t assume that if you do what everybody tells you to do that it’ll work out. Nobody’s responsible for your career but you.
  2. Think strengths, not weaknesses – trying to fix weaknesses is a never-ending process, so focus on building strengths into world-class abilities instead (the book specifically calls out Marcus Buckingham of “Now, Discover your Strengths”, and Mihály Csíkszentmihályi of “Flow”).
  3. It’s not about you – help the people around you, both managers and coworkers, achieve their goals.
  4. Persistence trumps talent – given my recent posts, I don’t think I need to add anything there.
  5. Make excellent mistakes – avoiding mistakes means you aren’t stretching yourself – have high aspirations and make big mistakes, and then learn from the mistakes. It’s the deep practice concept in another form.
  6. Leave an imprint – do something that matters (another way of asking “What’s your sentence?”).

I thought it was a cute idea that took some standard career advice mantras and made them seem fresh by presenting them in the new form of a graphic novel. Not a ton of depth, but I enjoyed the quick read.

NurtureShock, by Po Bronson and Ashley Merriman

Thursday, February 4th, 2010

Book website
Amazon link

I’ve liked Po Bronson’s other books, like What should I do with my life?. I also really liked his New York magazine article called The Power (and Peril) of Praising Your Kids, which described Carol Dweck’s research into the fixed vs. growth mindset of children, and what a tremendous difference it made to praise effort rather than innate ability. So I’ve been meaning to read this book, which summarizes several similar topics (the praise article is the first chapter), and finally got it from the library a couple weeks ago.

The book covers several topics where common parenting assumptions do not match what science has learned over the past couple decades. The praise chapter describes how self-esteem is actually undermined by trying to build it up. There is a chapter on how squeezing in more activities and studying harder is causing kids to lose sleep, which has startling impacts on health and even intelligence (an hour of sleep a night separated A students from D students). Other chapters cover questions about race, honesty, the pace of cognitive development in children, self-control, and socialization.

One particularly non-intuitive point for me was that “to an adolescent, arguing is the opposite of lying”. Parents hate arguments, finding them stressful, disrespectful and destructive, and don’t appreciate their kids questioning their judgment. The interesting result was that kids that respect their parents are the ones most likely to argue with them – the rest “just pretended to go along with their parents’ wishes, but then they did what they wanted to do anyway”. In other words, parents that shut down conflict and argument ended up promoting lying because the kids didn’t feel bound by arbitrary rules that made no sense to them. But when the kids were allowed to have their say, and where parents could explain why the rules made sense, then the kids could be honest and ask for what they wanted, rather than feeling they had to lie and work around the rules. As an aside, substituting manager and employee for parent and kid in this paragraph illustrates the connection between management and parenting (in case you were wondering why I’d be reading a parenting book).

I think NurtureShock is a nice summary of interesting results from the new “science of kids”. I don’t know if there are any mind-blowing revelations, but I’m definitely questioning my instincts about praise and other topics as a result. I recommend going and checking out the list of all posts and articles the authors have published on the subject, including links to the articles listed above and many others, to see if you’d be interested in the book.

The Talent Code, by Daniel Coyle

Sunday, January 24th, 2010

Book website, with excerpts
Amazon link

A coworker recommended this to me, and was even kind enough to lend it to me for the weekend.

Coyle asks the question: where does talent come from? Is it nature (genetics) or nurture (environment/opportunity)? He started by visiting several talent hotbeds – the Russian tennis academy that spawned Marat Safin and Elena Dementieva, the Curacao Little League baseball team that has been consistently reaching the world semifinals, the soccer fields where Brazilians train – and constructs a thesis around what common factors he sees among those hotbeds.

Here’s what he came up with. Talent is a mix of three factors:

  • Deep practice – I’ve also heard it called deliberate practice. This is the kind of practice that is referred to in the “10,000 hour rule” popularized by Malcolm Gladwell – that it takes 10,000 hours of devoted effort to become a world-class expert at something – that’s 3 hours a day for ten years. Note this doesn’t mean just doing an activity – it means continuously pushing the limits of your ability, always operating just out of your comfort zone, making mistakes and learning to fix them, getting comfortable with that dynamic of improving by failing. And it’s making sure that time is spent doing the activities that you need to improve, whether it’s ball handling in soccer, technique in tennis, or expressivity in music.

    He has three rules for deep practice:

    • Chunk it up – he breaks this into three parts as well – absorb the whole thing, break it into chunks, and then slow down each chunk until you can get it exactly right. I described something similar in my cognitive subroutines post.
    • Repeat it – This doesn’t mean repeating it mindlessly – it’s more about practicing each day and trying to push the limits just a bit more. He cites research saying that we can only live in that edge zone for three to five hours each day, so any more than that is just mindless repetition and doesn’t actually help.
    • Learn to feel it – In other words, internalize it to the point where it’s unconscious and emotions guide your reactions rather than depending on conscious rational thought. Our conscious mind is slow, so to be effective, we have to get everything into the unconscious.
  • Ignition – This is the will necessary to sustain oneself through those interminable hours of deep practice. Coyle suggests that one powerful factor is seeing others do it – if they can do it, why can’t I? He gives the example of Roger Bannister and the four minute mile – it was considered humanly impossible until Bannister did it, and within a year many others had. Or the explosion of baseball talent in Curacao after watching Andruw Jones, from Curacao, hit two home runs in his World Series debut as a 19-year-old rookie. Or the rise in South Korean professional women golfers after Se Ri Pak won an LPGA event in 1998. Ignition can also occur because of a desire to belong – Coyle cites several examples of clubs or teams providing the spark for kids to invest the necessary practice time.

    My favorite point in this section was a study by Gary McPherson which tracked students who were taking up musical instruments in middle school, and discovered that the single best indicator of how successful they would be with the instrument was a question that was asked of them before they started: how long do you plan to continue playing this instrument? Those that said they were planning to play the instrument for the long term got more out of 20 minutes of practice than the short-termers got out of 90 minutes. The instrument was part of the long-termers’ identity, and so they wanted to continue pushing themselves and get into that zone of deep practice.

  • Master Coaching – Coyle suggests that both deep practice and ignition can be catalyzed by a great coach. The coaches that he interviews are masters at observing each student and pushing the right buttons for each of them to get to the next level. Praise and criticism and information transfer are simply tools to push students to stay in that zone of deep practice at the edge of their abilities. For example, Coyle cites a study of John Wooden’s coaching style, which said that 7% of his communication was praise, 7% was criticism and 75% was information transfer – much of it in the form of “Here’s the right way, here’s what you’re doing (incorrectly), and now here’s the right way again” to reinforce the subtle improvements he desired. Another good quote from the coaching section was that “small successes were not stopping points, but stepping stones … Good. Okay, now do ____”.

One major theme of the book is the process by which expertise gets embedded in our brains. Coyle cites neuroscience research showing that brain circuits that get used extensively are reinforced by growing a myelin sheath around them – the myelin provides insulation for those neural pathways and improves the speed at which those neural pathways fire. In other words, as we repeat and get better at an activity, there is a physiological change that speeds up the signals in our brain so that we can do it faster. I love how this ties into my idea of cognitive subroutines and why I think that repetition and memorization is critical for expertise. I also learned that the myelin sheath breaks down so it has to be continually rebuilt, which is why we have to keep practicing every day if we want to maintain our expertise. Also, it responds to neural activity, and the activity is strongest when we are in deep practice mode, trying new things and seeing what works and what doesn’t.

All in all, a good book covering an important topic in a well-written breezy way. Admittedly, I like it partially because it reinforces my existing biases, so I liked the anecdotes and the neuroscience that supports those biases.

P.S. Another John Wooden quote: “Don’t look for the big, quick improvement. Seek the small improvement one day at a time. That’s the only way it happens – and when it happens, it lasts… Repetition is the key to learning.” This reinforces Drive‘s point that we need to pick our overall goal and get a little better each day.

Drive, by Daniel Pink

Wednesday, January 20th, 2010

Drive book website
Amazon link

I really liked Pink’s TED talk on the “surprising science of motivation” where he says “There’s a mismatch between what science knows and what business does”. In particular, the compensation and motivation strategies currently used by businesses have been shown to undermine motivation rather than enhance it. So I’ve been interested in reading the book-length version of his argument, and managed to snag it from the library soon after release.

Alas, there’s not much more in the book than what’s in the TED video. So go watch that. Or read his “cocktail party summary”:

When it comes to motivation, there’s a gap between what science knows and what business does. Our current business operating system–which is built around external, carrot-and-stick motivators–doesn’t work and often does harm. We need an upgrade. And the science shows the way. This new approach has three essential elements: 1. Autonomy – the desire to direct our own lives. 2. Mastery — the urge to get better and better at something that matters. 3. Purpose — the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.

I don’t have much to add beyond that, except to cheer him on. I think that creating new organizational cultures that trust people rather than processes is a goal towards which we should all be aspiring, even if I have no idea how to make that happen.

I also really liked his 2 questions video. The 2 questions:

  • What is your sentence? In other words, if you were forced to summarize your life’s work and accomplishments in one sentence, what would that sentence be? Distilling it to one sentence forces you to pick what your overall purpose is, rather than trying to do lots of things at once (says the generalist).
  • Was I better today than yesterday? After the sentence helps you define your purpose, each day is an opportunity to move closer to that purpose. Having a daily check-in forces us to question every day whether we’re making progress towards our goals. Or to put it another way, using a quote I found on Twitter, “If it’s important enough to you, you’ll find a way. If not, you’ll find an excuse.”

The weekday posts are going to be less thoughtful, but, hey, I’ve got a year’s backlog of books to review, so I can crank those out during the week, and hopefully I can continue digging into more meaty topics on the weekend.

The Design of Business, by Roger Martin

Tuesday, January 19th, 2010

Amazon link

I’m not sure where I heard about this book, but the subtitle, “Why Design Thinking is the Next Competitive Advantage”, pretty much sold me on at least checking it out, since I’m interested in both design and management. So I got it from the library and read it.

Martin frames business as operating in a “knowledge funnel”, which starts with a mystery, gets refined to a heuristic, and is instituted into an algorithm. He uses McDonald’s as an example of the knowledge funnel.

  • A mystery is a new niche or new problem that is not handled by existing solutions. People wander around in the mystery trying things to see if they can figure out something that might work. In the case of McDonald’s, the McDonald brothers were trying to figure out how a restaurant should work in a mobile car culture.

  • Once a partial solution has been found, it becomes a heuristic or rule-of-thumb. The heuristic is a frame that provides a useful way of thinking about the mystery that makes its solution tractable. It doesn’t guarantee results, but generates working solutions more often than not. The McDonald’s brothers created the idea of fast food as we know it, with reduced menu options, standardized cooking, and the drive-thru instead of the drive-in. But it was still dependent on the implementation at each new restaurant.
  • Once a heuristic has shown the way, the drive for efficiency begins, where the uncertainties of the heuristic are mapped out such that every element can be institutionalized as an algorithm. Once an algorithm exists, it can be standardized such that anybody can run it, or even automated by a computer. Ray Kroc bought the McDonald’s chain and compiled explicit instructions for every aspect of running a franchise, from how long to cook hamburgers, how often to clean the bathrooms, and even how to choose a new location.

The knowledge funnel is a nice little metaphor, but it is not a particularly new way of looking at things. Or maybe that’s just my overactive relational mind making connections everywhere, as I think that the knowledge funnel could be seen as another form of Latour’s Collective process or Moore’s Chasm.

Martin did articulate well how a company is often started around finding a heuristic to solve a mystery, and then spends the rest of its existence refining that heuristic into ever more efficient algorithms. But if the company isn’t careful, another company will find a new mystery that disrupts the original company’s business model (aka the innovator’s dilemma).

One of the reasons that companies get trapped into refining efficiency is that tackling mysteries is scary. Once a company is into the refining heuristic stage, decisions can be made analytically. Refinements can be tested to see if they are more efficient and reliable, so that cold, hard data removes the subjectivity of the heuristic.

Tackling new mysteries requires a leap away from the safety of data and reliability. Martin suggests that “validity” is a better way to think about such problems than reliability – a valid solution that works some of the time is more valuable than a less valid solution that works every time.

The rest of the book describes several case studies of companies that have successfully made the leap to “design thinking”, where attacking the next mystery is valued as much as refining the existing solution. His examples included:

  • P&G, which realized that it was better at the heuristic and algorithm phases of the knowledge funnel, so it set the goal of sourcing “half its product innovation from outside the company” to take advantage of its development engine.

  • RIM, the makers of Blackberry – I liked the description that the founders “realized RIM’s strengths lay in designing, building and marketing communications devices for busy people” which is a good mission statement since it is completely technology-independent
  • Herman Miller, the makers of the Aeron chair – where the CEO emphasized the independence of design to the point where he said “You never ask the sales force what they think of a design. Their job is to sell it.”

One suggestion I liked for companies to avoid ossifying around an existing algorithm was for companies to use a project oriented structure:

“In companies organized around ongoing, permanent tasks, roles are rigidly defined, with clear responsibilities and economic incentives linked tightly to those individual responsibilities. This structure discourages all but senior staff from seeing the big picture… to move along the knowledge funnel is by definition a project; it is a finite effort to move something from mystery to heuristic or from heuristic to algorithm. And such projects demand a business organized accordingly, with ad hoc teams and clearly delimited goals.

In other words, when your entire job is defined around a function, you will not welcome others who are trying to disrupt the status quo, even if that’s the right thing for the company. But if everybody works in a project-oriented mode as they do at design firms like Ideo, they will work towards finishing the current project, and moving onto the next.

Overall, this was a quick read with a few good anecdotes and a useful metaphor, but it’s not a book that I see myself buying for my permanent collection.

P.S. Using the cheat code of doing a book review for a blog post, since they don’t require as much thought. We’ll see how long I can keep this up.

Super Bowl Sunday

Thursday, February 5th, 2009

Yikes, it has been a long time since I blogged. I’ve been buried at work, although things seem to be slowing down a bit (knock on wood). For those of you that want more regular updates, I recommend Twitter and/or as those get updated more regularly.

This past weekend, though, I made time to watch the Super Bowl, because, well, it’s the Super Bowl. I was alas unable to make it to a Super Bowl party, or even host one myself, because I ended up working both before and after the game. But I enjoyed the Super Bowl experience, both the game and one ad in particular, so I’m going to write about both, because hey, it’s my blog, and I don’t currently have the brainpower to write a “Deep Thoughts What I Have Thunk” post (tm Jofish).

The game itself had some amazing plays. The James Harrison interception was just ridiculous, and may have decided the game, as it was a 14-point swing that killed the Cardinals’ momentum.

But the Cardinals came back, and Larry Fitzgerald’s touchdown was a thing of beauty. You can’t see it from the angles they show in that video, but the play design was just brilliant. Given that Larry Fitzgerald had dominated the postseason and ended up with more yards, receptions and touchdowns of any playoff run ever, it’s almost inconceivable that a defense could possibly let him get wide open and score a lead-changing touchdown. Here’s what happened: The Steelers were in a deep Cover 2 defense, with the safeties 25 yards off the line of scrimmage to take away any chance at a big play. The Cardinals saw that, and lined up three receivers. Two receivers ran straight down the sidelines. The safeties both did what they were supposed to do, and scooted over a few steps to the outside to help the cornerbacks and make sure those outside receivers didn’t get past them. But taking those steps emptied out the middle of the field. Meanwhile, Larry Fitzgerald took an underneath route across the middle, caught the ball, broke one tackle, and then it was just a race to the end zone, which he won. So in the clip when you see three guys chasing him, it’s the two safeties who were lured out of position by the decoy receivers, and a linebacker who was trying to catch up. Just an awesome play call, illustrating the chess game that happens at the highest levels of the NFL.

Meanwhile, my favorite Super Bowl ad, by far, was the Audi: Chase commercial because of the way it layers in meaning after meaning, taking advantage of our cultural knowledge.

  1. It’s Jason freaking Statham, star of The Transporter series of movies. Because we know who Statham is and the characters he plays, we automatically ascribe those characteristics to this character. So within five seconds of the commercial starting, we know who the protagonist is, without a single line being spoken.
  2. The cultural references it makes in each decade are extremely specific. The cars change, the style of the car chase changes, the music changes, the lighting changes, etc. And, again, we are expected to recognize the evolution because we understand all these references.
    • The 70s: He drives a Mercedes, the chase car is a Ford LTD, the car chase is basic with no crazy moves (remember the first car chase was Bullitt in 1968, and it seems pointlessly long and boring at this point), the music just feels like 70s music, and the lighting is washed-out and hopeless.
    • The 80s: He drives a BMW, the chase car is a Trans Am, the car chase involves a ridiculous jump (remember Knight Rider and the A Team), the music is cheesy synth pop, the lighting is sunny and bright with pastels, the guy is holding a ridiculously large cellular phone, etc.
    • The 90s: He drives a Lexus (okay, makes a disgusted face at a Lexus), the chase car is an SUV, we skip the car chase, the movie marquee refers to Tommy Boy, the lighting is dark and gritty, very much in line with the grunge era.
    • Modern day: Statham is tuxed up, drives the Audi and gets away, despite black-clad motorcyclists, and a chase scene with quick cuts and frenetic motion.

What was incredible about this to me is that they set up these scenes within 10 seconds each by leveraging our cultural knowledge. Using every element available to them, they anchored each scene firmly in a different decade, and were thus able to convey the underlying theme of the commercial which is that the Audi was the apotheosis of car design, the evolutionary endpoint.

I also loved that you can enjoy the commercial without catching any of these references, as it is still satisfying on a basic level, because, hey, three car chases in 60 seconds. But if you catch the references going by, it adds depth and meaning while still staying coherent. I love it when narratives work on multiple levels, so this ad really pleased me.

By the way, I should mention that the second part of this post is an homage to Grant McCracken, whose brilliant post deconstructing the meaning making in a Volvo commercial continues to inspire me to analyze the meanings designed into the world around me. And the Audi commercial was one that just begged for this sort of deconstruction.

I’ll get back to more regular posting soon, with a backlog of book reviews to do, and other topics on my mind. Soon. Really.

Nonfiction Roundup August 2008

Tuesday, August 26th, 2008

I’m finishing up packing my books, and came across the pile of books that I read this summer but haven’t reviewed yet. So this is going to be a quickie placeholder post with short reviews of each book, and hopefully I’ll have time to come back and do a longer review later on a couple of them (particularly McCracken’s book).

Transformations, by Grant McCracken

I’m a big fan of Grant McCracken’s blog, so I was eagerly anticipating his new book, which postulates that, as he titles his preface, “Entertainment is dead, long live Transformation”. Instead of passively watching entertainment, people have become active consumers of the world around them, using ideas from all cultures to drive change within themselves. We have moved from a world where one’s birth determined one’s destiny (sons of tailors became tailors) to one where we reinvent each ourselves on an ongoing basis. McCracken traces transformation possibilities throughout history, starting with tribal ritualistic transformations of rites of passage, passing through the industrial conception of working to improve one’s social status by imitating the upper class, on to the 50s warring transformations of beatnik dropout culture vs. technophilic “brightwork” culture, and then to the postmodern transformations available to us today. McCracken takes the reader on a tour of several categories of these postmodern transformations, including the capitalistic swift self and the Eastern-philosophy leaning radiant self. I highly recommend this book – it’s so dense with new ideas and incisive observations that every few pages I would have to put it down and think for a while.

Convergence Culture, by Henry Jenkins

Henry Jenkins is an MIT professor who is one of the leading analysts of media and culture and technology. This book is a collection of essays on three concepts he describes as media convergence, participatory culture, and collective intelligence. He uses these ideas to analyze a number of different communities, including the Internet groups that work to discover who wins the Survivor reality show before the results are displayed, the delicate interaction between corporations and fans in American Idol voting, the transmedia creation of the Matrix movies, etc. I liked his description of the “social process of acquiring knowledge” that communities like the Survivor “spoilers” develop to decide what information is accepted as community knowledge as opposed to individual contributions (reminiscent of Latour’s collective). Jenkins also emphasizes the ways in which culture is not a degrading force to be demonized, but instead a powerful force that drives people to collaborate in ways they might not under normal circumstances (e.g. his essay on “Why Heather can write”, discussing Harry Potter fan fiction). I liked how this book provides a quick tour inside these different communities, but I don’t feel like I came away with a necessarily new understanding of these trends. It felt a little fluffy to me, but that may be because of my relative familiarity with this world compared to his target audience.

Group Genius, by Keith Sawyer

Keith Sawyer is a psychology professor who studied under Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Flow (which I’ve still never read), and this book is his attempt to extend the Flow theory to how groups of people think and interact. Sawyer is an experienced jazz musician and improv comedian, two activities where the “product” is a collaborative creation among several people, and depends on the group working with each other and creating a “group flow” situation. He starts out by showing how very few inventions are the work of a lone genius – inventions involve continual improvements, as people keep on adding one more feature, until the final result is unrecognizable as the work of a single person. He also suggests the conditions necessary for a group to achieve flow, including trust, placing the group’s goals over individual egos, communication and active listening, etc. I love the concept of group genius, especially given my penchant for teams, but the book felt light on the details of actually achieving it. It’s a useful quick read, though, for reorienting around the idea of groups rather than individual genius.

X Saves the World, by Jeff Gordinier

This is a fun little rant by a Gen-X-er on various trends associated with our generation. It was particularly fun for me as I identified all too well with his descriptions e.g. Gen-X-ers taking pride in knowing things, “sponging up information” while “finding [their] own path through this maze of programming and pressures” (he cites Richard Linklater, Quentin Tarantino and Beck as slackers whose encyclopedic knowledge eventually turned into an asset). Or his assertion that “Xers are temperamentally opposed to a monoculture”. Gen X rejects how it is told to behave, and figures things out for itself. I enjoyed reading through and identifying with this book, although I can’t say there’s all that much substance here – more like a guided trip down memory lane.

After reading this book and being sensitized to these generational issues, Sanford’s post about generational analysis caught my eye, as well as a followup by Jessica Margolin. Apparently, William Strauss and Neil Howe have identified four generational archetypes, which tend to repeat themselves in a cultural cycle with the “Nomad (Reactive)” generation (that’s Gen X) following (and rejecting) the “Prophet/Idealist” generation (Baby Boomers) – I’d really like to read their book at some point, as it sounds interesting.

Why Do I Love These People?, by Po Bronson

After Bronson tackled the question of careers in What should I do with my life?, Bronson addresses the topic of family in this book. As with his previous book, Bronson spent a couple years wandering the country talking to people about their families, and this is a collection of the stories that he gathered. Also like his previous book, the stories don’t just include easy stories of happy families – it includes stories of people struggling to make their families work in difficult circumstances (including a memorable one of a couple from opposite sides of the Irish split). Each person will have their own stories that they identify with in this book, but it was inspiring in reminding me that families don’t just happen – they require dedication and work and selflessness. I mostly read this book one story at a time at bedtime, and I think it was a good way to read it.

Civil Disobedience, by Thoreau (Project Gutenberg version)

Read on the iPhone with Stanza. Interesting essay where Thoreau examines the idea of government and what it means to submit to majority rule, especially if the majority is wrong (as it was about slavery when he wrote it). He also decries the accumulation of wealth and material objects as chains that prevent people from doing the right thing because they are afraid of losing what they have. In contrast, he laughs at his night in jail for not paying his taxes:

I could not help being struck with the foolishness of that institution which treated me as if I were mere flesh and blood and bones, to be locked up. I wondered that it should have concluded at length that this was the best use it could put me to, and had never thought to avail itself of my services in some way. I saw that, if there was a wall of stone between me and my townsmen, there was a still more difficult one to climb or break through before they could get to be as free as I was. I did nor for a moment feel confined, and the walls seemed a great waste of stone and mortar. I felt as if I alone of all my townsmen had paid my tax. They plainly did not know how to treat me, but behaved like persons who are underbred. In every threat and in every compliment there was a blunder; for they thought that my chief desire was to stand the other side of that stone wall. I could not but smile to see how industriously they locked the door on my meditations, which followed them out again without let or hindrance, and they were really all that was dangerous. As they could not reach me, they had resolved to punish my body; just as boys, if they cannot come at some person against whom they have a spite, will abuse his dog. I saw that the State was half-witted, that it was timid as a lone woman with her silver spoons, and that it did not know its friends from its foes, and I lost all my remaining respect for it, and pitied it.

Interesting thoughts, especially when I’m feeling weighed down by how much stuff I have, and wish I could learn to live lighter. Not to mention the freedom and courage to stand up for what is right.

Leadership Lessons of the Navy Seals, by Jeff and Jon Cannon

A management book with a twist, as it’s from the interesting perspective of extracting lessons from the Navy Seals, an extremely effective organization. The authors illustrate each of their lessons with an example from Jon’s experience in how Navy Seals train and operate, and then describe an example of applying the same lesson to corporate life from Jeff’s consulting work. Nothing too new here, but it was fun seeing how the same leadership principles apply in the different context of life-and-death missions.

Fiction Roundup August 2008

Saturday, August 23rd, 2008

Wow. I haven’t posted any fiction reviews in the past year. Then again, I haven’t been reading much new fiction in the past year – mostly I’ve been re-reading comfort books or watching TV instead of fiction reading. Anyway, I was going through my bookshelves, and figured I should do at least a capsule review of a couple books before I gave them to HousingWorks.

The Learners, by Chip Kidd

I adored The Cheese Monkeys, so of course I bought this sequel. We follow Happy, the graphic design student of the first book, into the working world and his experience with the world of advertising in the 1960s. I enjoyed the first part of the book, as he tries to get his bearings in a wacky advertising firm straight out of a sitcom. The second part of the book gets more heavy as Happy ends up participating in the Milgram experiment, and Kidd explores what it would feel like to realize one had shocked another person to death because a man in a lab coat said so. The book gets darker at this point – still worth reading.

As an aside, Kidd released a Youtube video to promote The Learners where he does “5 Experiments in Form and Content”, delivering one character’s lines in the style of another e.g. Psalms 23 as read by the Wicked Witch of the West. Also, I found his recently released music video, Asymmetrical Girl, to be very entertaining in his use of visuals to underline the lyrics.

Fledgling and Saltation, by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller

I’m a huge fan of the Liaden universe, and so when I found out via Kevin Kelly that Sharon Lee and Steve Miller were publishing the next novels in the series in first draft form, I jumped at the opportunity to read them. Saltation isn’t quite done yet, but even in this proto-form, they have been quite entertaining.

Soon I Will Be Invincible, by Austin Grossman

Recommended by Wes, as I think he knows Grossman. Entertaining superhero novel, with two intertwining first-person narratives, one from Doctor Impossible, the clicheed supervillain, and the other from Fatale, an aspiring superhero. CoreFire, the most powerful member of the Champions, has gone missing, and Doctor Impossible suspiciously breaks out of prison (again) soon after. The Champions bring Fatale on board to help find CoreFire, and she gets sucked into the battle between the superheroes and the supervillain.

I thought the Fatale narrative worked better, as it conveyed the overwhelming nature of joining a superhero team, where she was now interacting with people she had only seen on TV. Perhaps it felt more real because we all have those moments where we feel starstruck meeting somebody that we’ve admired. The Doctor Impossible narrative was more disappointing, as it never really explored his motivations for wanting to rule the world. Sure, he was an overlooked downtrodden nerd, but who wasn’t? I would have liked more insight into what made him into a supervillain (although oddly, I liked that they didn’t try to give the Joker any backstory in the Dark Knight this summer – bah, consistency).

Tolerably entertaining, probably best suited for a library read or for borrowing from me.

Mask Market, by Andrew Vachss

I’m a big fan of the Burke series by Vachss, but it’s starting to run out of steam at this point. Burke’s been around for twenty years now, and I think Vachss has run out of things to say. I still love the characters and the way these broken people have formed a family of choice under incredibly difficult circumstances, but the plots no longer have the iconic memorability of the earlier Burke novels. I actually debated throwing this in the donation pile, but decided to give it another chance at some point.

Deadman’s Bluff, by James Swain

I’ve enjoyed earlier entries in the Tony Valentine series, so I picked this up when I saw it in the used book store. Tony Valentine is a retired cop who busts gamblers trying to cheat casinos. As usual, he gets in trouble. Entertaining as always, with the best part being Swain describing how various scams work. Entertainingly, I also bought Sucker Bet at the same time, even though I apparently already have a copy (it’s in storage with the rest of my books). I should pick up the rest of the series at some point.

Market Forces, by Richard K. Morgan

I got this from Jofish, although I still haven’t figured out if he meant to be sending a message or not. It’s a silly little near-future novel, where capitalism has run rampant, and corporations settle their battles with demolition derby-like duels, although the duels are settled purely on driving skill without auto-mounted weapons. So two people up for promotion for the same position? They settle it on the road. The winners get the top positions, and then exploit the hell out of developing countries to guarantee resources for their companies, helping revolutionaries in exchange for a guaranteed supply chain. The book centers on the struggle of one such executive to get out of the corporate life before it kills him. Ho hum.

Paperback Original, by Will Rhode

Picked this up at HousingWorks at some point because it looked entertaining. Essentially a gangster heist plot, but with the protagonist as an ex-pat in India, which adds a colorful air to the proceedings. Not too memorable, although I think it would have been more entertaining if I had travelled in India and recognized the various locations mentioned.

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