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Who am I?

You can look at my home page for more information, but the short answer is that I'm a dilettante who likes thinking about a variety of subjects. I like to think of myself as a systems-level thinker, more concerned with the big picture than with the details. Current interests include politics, community formation, and social interface design. Plus books, of course.

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Thu, 01 Jan 2004

Small Things Considered, by Henry Petroski
Subtitled Why There Is No Perfect Design, this book by an engineer describes the compromises necessary in any design. This was recommended as a book-of-the-month by Joel Spolsky - scroll down for his snippet on this book. I was intrigued enough to toss it into my latest Amazon order, and read it while at my parents over Christmas.

Petroski does a good job of looking at the simplest things and the design inherent in them. In one chapter, he discusses the design of the drinking glass sitting on his desk as he's writing. How wide should it be for people to get a comfortable grip on it? It has to be a compromise, because people have differently sized hands - do you design for the average? How tall should it be? Short and squat means it's less likely to tip over and spill its contents all over your desk. But taller means more capacity, which means fewer refills. How thick should the glass be? On the sides? On the bottom? More glass on the bottom means it's more stable, but it also weighs more, so it's harder to pick up. He mentions the convenience of the glass being round, so you can pick it up without looking at it, because any alignment is equally suitable for drinking, but square glasses would pack better into cabinets. All of these decisions had to be made by somebody while making this glass. And there's no perfect design. It depends on the situation; if you're thirsty, you want a bigger glass, if you're going to be working with a lot of papers, you want a short, more stable glass. If you're a big person, you may want bigger glasses to fit your hands better. All of design is contextual. All design choices are compromises when designing for the use of more than one person, or even the same person at different times (clothes that are appropriate for lounging around the house in are not appropriate for going to the symphony in, even if they fit equally well).

I thought this discussion was interesting, but the book never really changed in tone. Each chapter was basically a repeat of the same thesis and the same detailed examination of an object, starting with the drinking glass, but later touching on one's house, lighting from MagLites to light bulbs, cars, supermarkets, duct tape, toothbrushes, etc. Some of the details were interesting, explaining why certain design choices were made in the development of some of these products, but the sameness of the discussion was evident by the end. I'm not sure what I would have done differently as the author, but by the end, I was starting to skim, and even though it was a relatively quick read, I was glad it was over when I finished. I can't say I recommend it unless you're interested in the specific design choices made for some of these products; the previous paragraph basically gives you the entire thesis of the book, and there's no reason to read any more than that.

posted at: 03:57 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/nonfiction/general | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

The Da Vinci Code, by Dan Brown
This was recommended to me by a couple co-workers. When they were describing it to me, with its plot referencing the Knights Templar and other secret societies, I said it sounded a lot like Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum, dumbed down into a thriller format for an American audience. So when I was at my parents' house for Christmas, and they had a copy lying around that one of their friends had left behind, I read it. And my opinion remains unchanged. It's a reasonably well-written thriller, with several twists and turns. But I felt the background information of the secret societies was used in a self-aggrandizing way, more in the sense of "look how clever I am at having done this research" than as an integral part of the plot. The thriller plot itself was somewhat stilted, especially with the puzzles scattered throughout the book; the protagonists are set in motion by a murder, the victim of which set up a puzzle that only they can solve, whose clues lead them around Paris throughout the book.

It's interesting comparing this book to Foucault's Pendulum. It's been several years since I read that book, but it draws upon many of the same source materials as The Da Vinci Code. But the difference between the two books is remarkable. Eco is an Italian semiotician, who studies the meaning of signs, and the wide variety of meaning that can be ascribed to signs of all sorts. And this instability is evident in Foucault's Pendulum, where it's unclear whether secret societies really exist, or whether they are brought into being by the machinations of the protagonist. Everything is uncertain, and there are no easy answers. In contrast, Dan Brown is apparently a thriller writer, so his puzzles only have one answer. There's a definite path from start to end in his book, and the secret societies are treated as real entities and his research as fact, the good guys are always the good guys, and the bad guys lose. It makes for a quick read (I finished it in less than a day), but it also leaves one feeling kind of empty, and I suspect I'll forget everything about the book in a few weeks. And I'm left with a desire to re-read Foucault's Pendulum to get a better compare and contrast. But we'll see if I get motivated enough to do that.

posted at: 03:37 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/fiction/mystery | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Crossing the Chasm, by Geoffrey Moore
This is one of those standard high-tech marketing books that everybody refers to in the technology business sector. I had never gotten around to reading it, but after our marketing folks started mentioning the chasm in every presentation recently, I figured it was time to skim through it, just to find out what they're talking about.

Moore originally published this book in 1991, but its lessons have not been undermined by the experiences of the nineties. He recently published a second edition (which is the one I read, and the one linked to at Amazon above), which updates the case studies to use companies that more people would be familiar with now, but the basic principles of the chasm and how to cross it remain. What is the chasm, you might ask? The picture at the right, taken from Wikipedia's review, illustrates the concept. In the development of any technology, Moore postulates that there is a pattern of adoption, starting with technology enthusiasts and visionaries. For these people, the fact that the technology is new and different is reason enough to use it. They adopt technology for its own sake, and are able to cope with its deficiencies in order to have the latest bleeding-edge features.

But to cross into the mainstream, the technology has to solve a problem in a way that is better than the current solution. In some sense, early on the technology is an answer in search of a question. To break into the large majority of consumers, the question must be posed and the technology must be demonstrated to be a superior answer to that question. Many high-technology companies, which are naturally run by technology enthusiasts, never understand this distinction, and therefore their products fail while crossing this "chasm" to the consumer majority. The first part of this book is an explanation of the chasm phenomenon, while the second part addresses tactics for crossing it and getting your product out to the general population.

I thought that this book had a lot of good points in addressing the different mindsets of different consumers. And as a technology enthusiast, I find it very easy to be seduced by new technology so I totally understand how companies can drive into the chasm at full speed. But I also sympathize with the consumers who just want to buy something that works. When I go and buy a television, I expect to be able to come home, plug it in, and be able to be watching shows 30 seconds later. I do not expect to have to spend days setting it up and playing with it to get it right. So the issues that need to be addressed to reach the consumer majority are not technology issues per se. They are design issues, they are support issues, etc.

I'd recommend this book for anybody involved in high-technology company. Since it has passed into the accepted wisdom of marketing at this point, it's useful for understanding the jargon being thrown around, and for understanding how your company's strategy tries to address some of these issues. Plus, it's a fast read, so why not?

posted at: 03:12 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/nonfiction/management | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal