Sunday, January 29, 2012

Happiness, Lessons from a New Science, by Richard Layard

Happiness, Lessons from a New Science, by Richard Layard

Wow - what twaddle. This must be one of the worst books ever written. Layard thinks that he has discovered a new 'science'! This 'science' involves cramming together random pet theories - and declaring that they will make society happier.

The 'idea' behind the book is that economists should focus not on economies but happiness, and that society should be organized around the maximization of happiness. So far, so good and as Layard admits - this not exactly new either. Bentham would recognize the theft of the idea.

But somehow, Layard (presumably having triumphantly created an enormous fortune for himself through his superior understanding of the old 'science' of economics, or not), thinks that this might be a new angle. He then proceeds to explore the idea, picking useless and contradictory illustrations for his lengthy selection of random talking points.

For example, he cites the observation that Oscar winners are happier than their peers and therefore live longer. This is fairly early on on the twaddle, and I was cutting him some slack at this point. However, I could not help but think - 'Hollywood likes its beautiful, healthy people, I wonder how they controlled for that statistically' (You might just as easily imagine that, like a Crufts winner, once you've won something you will be well looked after, and so on). So, as one does these days, I simple googled 'oscar winners live longer than losers', and the first hit provides the necessary details. Suffice it to say that the statistical analysis behind the original article in the 'Annals of Internal Medicine' was flawed, and this has been pointed out in the same journal, several times, starting soon after the original article. You would think that an economist would have been able to discern the faulty analysis for himself, but even if not, he could have googled it.

Apparently, this particular flawed thinking has a name 'Immortal Bias', "We note that 100 percent of the Oscar winners live to be at least 30 years old. Of course this is not surprising because they are known to be Oscar winners. Thus we know ahead of time that the Oscar winners will live longer than a traditional life table would predict. This gives them an advantage in their life expectancy. This is called a selection bias or Immortal bias." (see 'Oscar winners do_not live longer'). In fact, all this was discussed in the original article - but somewhere along the line someone wanted some publicity, or they wanted to flog a book, and the falsehood flourished.

By the way, apparently the Economist regurgitated the same flawed logic in 2007, so perhaps this form of statistical incompetence is endemic among economists. No wonder the economists like Layard are fleeing their own field, after all it is rather too easy to tell when the dust settles whether you have any money. Far better to be in the 'happinomics' 'science' department (now that climatology is known to be a fraud).

Layard enthuses about drugs at great length, both legal and illicit: '...the widest use of these drugs is "recreational" - to liberate the spirit and enhance the experience of life. Most drugs can do this if taken in moderation. And most people do practice moderation.' Layard thinks Freud's use of cocaine was wonderful, quoting with glee Freud's comments while under the influence.

But there is no mention of the increased happiness created by inexpensive energy, reliable food supplies, transport, modern medicine, declining attempts to exterminate races in systematic killing factories, and so on. Layard is completely oblivious to his selection bias - but I think that we can safely assume that he enjoys the sound of his own voice.

Of course, Layard thinks that progressive taxes on the wealthy will serve to defray the depressed happiness which ensues for everyone else if one person's income increases. (Honestly - and he explains this at great length as a form of happiness pollution). Somehow, Layard seems to have resisted learning from the economies of Cuba, North Korea, and all other attempts to remove income inequality. He even seems to have not understood that the founding fathers of the US spoke of the 'pursuit' of happiness and not simply dolling out 'happiness' in exchange for taxes to their docile, jealous citizens.

Well, I'm sure that Layard's own happiness is profound. He is funded by the taxpayer to waffle on about his own pet enthusiasms while his only output for his input is the justification of increased taxation - useful for his political masters - but not so good for society.


Sunday, August 22, 2010

Crystal Fire: The Birth of the Information Age by Michael Riordan and Lillian Hoddeson

I have to say that this is one of the best books I have ever read. The story lays out the invention of the transistor and the creation of the semiconductor revolution by three American physicists.

Often books like this, covering the history of scientific discoveries, do not provide enough technical detail. However, I was pleasantly surprised in this case. But the detail does not obscure the story. The book tears along at a great rate. From the first few pages, when the inventors of the transistor are early twentieth century farmers and gentry, to the creation of the first digital computers seems to take just a few logical hours.

As I read through the chapters, I was deeply impressed by the fact that theoretical arguments guided the thinking of both Schockley and Bardeen (I had previously only thought of Bardeen as a theoretician). However, this is quite wrong. In fact, Shockley, Bardeen, and Brattain each had a good appreciation of quantum mechanics and its implications. As they worked through the process of exploiting semiconductors, much of their work was guided by a knowledge of what should be possible based on their quantum mechanical knowledge.

And the book does not leave the story too soon. One sees how knowledge of transistors became knowledge of the ability to create integrated circuits. You see how silicon valley came into being. You find out what happened next for each of the inventors. (Either another Nobel prize in a different field, controversy and failed companies, or ongoing technical work for the same employer, depending on which inventor you pick).

Finally, I was very pleased to find a decent explanation of the famous first transistor, which features a large triangular tip resting on a slab of germanium. The text contains enough detail that you will understand that the plastic triangle was merely a support for two metallic contacts, and you will understand why Brattain made the contact in the way that he did, to defeat the intrinsic properties that he encountered in the germanium surface.

So - I cannot recommend this book highly enough (and if you check my reviews you will see that not all my reviews are glowing). If you want to find out who made the modern world possible and how, read this book. You will be impressed! - 5/5.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

The Future Is Unwritten Starring: Joe Strummer Director: Julian Temple

Ouch - a boring movie. Lots of people sitting around disparate campfires - that is about it - for 2 hours 20 minutes. (0/5). I was disappointed, I was looking forward to seeing this movie as I liked the Clash, and saw them in London once, back in the seventies. Back then I was impressed that Joe Strummer's singing wasn't affected by the transition from the 101ers to punk. Given his genuine singing style, I thought, he wasn't pretending in order to be part of the punk bandwagon. What this movie shows is that there were several transitions in the progression that included to Joe's success with the Clash. There was the art school, John phase, then the hippy, or Woody phase. There was the Joe Strummer phase, followed by the camp fire, sing song phase. And during the phases various Hollywood people popped in to sample the vibe. But, apparently, the phases were kept pretty separate. If you were part of the hippy phase, you weren't part of the punk phase. This separation of parts becomes clear from the movie, and despite the camp fire attempts to pull the parts together, the separation makes the movie slow moving and humorless.

While I liked the Clash, back in the seventies I didn't care so much for the Sex Pistols. Yet today 'Classic Albums: Never Mind the Bollocks' is a lot more entertaining. The Sex Pistols, and their producers, clearly had a sense of humor. The sound engineer talks about the orchestral layering of distorted guitar barre chords and the exquisite diction of Johnny Rotten. The reflections of the Sex Pistols are nicely ironic and amusing, they don't seem to be worried about people knowing their original names, or even allowing different phases to meet.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Crowdsourcing: Why the Power of the Crowd Is Driving the Future of Business by Jeff Howe

With the success of Google, Social bookmarking, Wikipedia, and Open Source software it is readily apparent that leveraging large numbers of contributors efficiently can lead to substantial value.

Google captures the information contained in inbound links to assess the quality of the web pages that it has indexed, and thereby determines the relative ranking in search results. Social bookmarking provides the opportunity for browsers to vote on the individual pages that they visit, and draw potentially massive attention to what is important. Wikipedia has created an information source which exceeds the largest available 'traditional' encyclopedias by orders of magnitude, and open source software developers have created operating systems and applications suites which are superior to commercial software products. So, it is clear when you can leverage many contributors, you can achieve great advances.

Crowdsourcing cites many such examples. It is quite a lengthy book, and contains roughly the same message told several different ways, depending on the application area in which crowdsourcing finds deployment. In addition to Google and Wikipedia, the examples range from technological problems distributed on an eBay-like site for scientists and engineers, stock photograph marketing sites, designer tee-shirt sites, popularity contests, better software development through competition, and so on.

The examples are interesting. You will learn a lot about the ways in which entrepreneurs are currently successfully (iStockPhoto) and not so successfully (CurrentTV) going about exploiting crowdsourcing. However, a key aspect of Crowdsourcing appears to have been missed by the author. That is the efficiency of exploiting the input provided by the crowd. Google uses the resource of existing web pages to pick up on the selections made by millions of web masters in the links that they chose to create, the information is there to be gleaned as Google crawls the web. Exploiting that information is not trivial, it requires significant amounts of storage and indexing capabilities, and Google has developed the necessary infrastructure to make that feat possible. Likewise, the social book marking sites provide value to their users in storing the browsing favorites and provide that storage efficiently, in order to extract the value of the information that the millions of stored votes on individual pages provide. Wikipedia has developed a site capable of handling enormous volumes of contributors and reviewers, without the need for a significant permanent staff. The foundation of open source development has been attention to efficient build systems which allow diverse contributors to build software in the same way and provide inherent and efficient delocalization. In contrast, centralized nightly builds, upon which all developers depend are favored by older, centralized software development outfits.

I enjoyed learning of a range of examples of crowdsourcing from the book. I had not heard of the NetFlix effort to create optimal recommendations based on a competition on the web before, for example. I also enjoyed hearing about the fact that 'outliers' who tried crazy things, not obvious to experts, often drove crowdsourced problem solving in profitable directions.

The book ends with a collection of rules derived from the rest of the text these are something along the following lines:

1. Choose a model from: collective intelligence, creation, voting, or funding.
2. Choose participants to act as influence providers to usher the crowd.
3. Offer incentives and recognition to all participants.
4. Don't think of crowdsourcing as outsourcing.
5. Your crowds will need leaders who influence.
6. Divide your work into small simple tasks.
7. Be prepared for much chaff, as much as 90% chaff in fact.
8. Also be prepared for 10% or so of valuable output.
9. Your community will always be right.
10. Serve your crowd, do not oppose it.

As I mentioned, the clearly missing aspects of the book from my perspective were suggestions on the mechanics of achieving crowdsourcing. How do you go about decomposing a problem and providing an infrastructure that can be used by many people and not cost a significant amount in development or support?

For me this is a 4/5 read. A useful collection of examples and illustrations but lacking in practical guidance.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell

I was given Outliers as a gift, and I must admit I was not looking forward to reading it. The reason for my trepidation was that Blink and Tipping Point, also by Malcolm Gladwell, were interesting but not particularly useful. I feared that it was the third book in a contractually bound series and that Outliers would be far from practical.

The person who gave me the gift believed that this book might contain the secret to creating successful 'outliers', which is a reasonable perspective, given the title and the marketing pitch.

However, I was surprised as I read through the pages. The main idea of the book was that the ultra-successful are victims of circumstance more than they are self made. For example, successful Canadian ice hockey players are predominantly born early in the year, which makes them old for their ice hockey age group and therefore gives them a size and coordination advantage which contributes substantially to their subsequent career success.

The book cites other examples of groups of possibly self made successes who owe their elevation to circumstance and luck. The examples include Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, The Beatles, rice farmers, and the murderers of Southern states.

Outliers might then have been better titled 'Circumstances'. As such the book might be a little discouraging to those that harbor the suspicion that their efforts and skills influence their results. Gladwell does allow that spending around 10,000 hours in an activity is essential to achieving mastery. However, actually putting in the those hours is a blend of aptitude and circumstance, with circumstance being the overriding concern.

The perspective of the book then is that environment allows for success. There is consideration of the creation of appropriate and inappropriate environments; with discussion of the mathematics and work ethics of rice farmers, degrees of color bias in Jamaican social life, and reprisals in tough border lands.

I found the book interesting and I liked the idea that the 'self made success, who worked his or her way from rags to riches' portrait is rarely accurate. I enjoyed the analysis of the difference between the middle class youngster, coached to discuss ailments with the family doctor, and its contrast with the underprivileged upbringing of socioeconomically deprived youngsters. Much of the basis of success is the expectation of success, access to appropriate resources, and the fortitude to put in 10,000 hours of practice.

However, I rate Outliers at 3/5 because although there is much description and explanation there is no analysis of what should be done on the basis of the description. The 'how to' factor is very low - at no point does one determine what one should do on the basis of the discussion, aside from arranging birth dates and locations appropriately, which is far from practical.

Monday, September 22, 2008

The Back of the Napkin: Solving Problems and Selling Ideas with Pictures by Dan Roam

Dan Roam is the person in a meeting who jumps up and starts creating diagrams on the whiteboard. If you are interested in improving your own ability to understand and solve problems through drawings, The Back of the Napkin, Dan’s book, is a good and thorough introduction to the world of visual thinking.

As I read through, I must admit that on occasion I wished the book were a little shorter. This would not detract from the message or its value but it would make the book more engaging and immediate. As it is you have to battle through the ‘who/what, how many, where, when, how and why’ questions from several different directions before you seem to begin to make progress with the subject. I was also disappointed to find that Dan does not refer to Malcolm Craig’s Thinking Visually. Malcolm Craig describes causation conveyed by various diagrams, whereas Dan Roam talks about ‘How’ diagrams. However, Dan does not provide the range of causation or ‘How’ diagrams that Malcolm Craig describes and I found this slightly disappointing.

Dan, however, provides a concrete game plan for working through business problems visually. This includes two devices for taking problems apart. The first is the ‘who/what, how many, where, when, how and why’ questions already alluded to. Secondly there is a set of imagination focusing questions designed to help you understand what it is that you should be showing. These have the mnemonic ‘SQVID’. By the time the six basic questions are combined with the five imagination questions of SQVID, there are 30 possible diagrams to consider.

So, you rapidly form the impression that Dan has been working with people who wanted a step by step formula that could be applied in solving problems, and this indeed is what Dan has provided. If you want a simple formula that will empower you in stepping up to the white board and laying out the issues of the day so that you can help your team generate solutions this book will help.

I was very impressed by Dan’s web site It is a very well crafted site and I am sure is helping to drive his book sales. If you are thinking of buying, a visit to this site will probably convince you to take the plunge.

I award the book 4/5. As I was slogging through the repetition at various stages, wishing for the shorter version, I was thinking that a lower score was warranted. However, the overall result is positive and the book is certainly useful hence, 4/5.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Non-Iron Shirts by Charles Tyrwhitt

I am always interested in products which are practical. Hence I had an interest in Non-Iron Shirts by Charles Tyrwhitt. The prospect of saving a little time at the ironing board was irresistible. However, I am not satisfied! Non-Iron Shirts by Charles Tyrwhitt have not worked well for me. There are three problems: They are expensive, require ironing, and have inconvenient removable metal collar stiffeners. The expense is something which will be evident to you when you contemplate buying such a shirt. In itself expense is not a show stopper. However, the poor non-iron performance is a problem. You will get a few non-iron OK washes from your shirts (around two), but thereafter wrinkles will be evident in the dry shirt and you will need to be ironing your expensive shirt before you can wear it. Finally, you will be constantly forgetting to remove the metallic collar stiffeners prior to washing and wondering whether you have destroyed your washing machine and why your shirts look cockeyed at the collar, when they go missing. For the above reasons I award Non-Iron Shirts by Charles Tyrwhitt the low end score of 0/5, not recommended under any circumstances.
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Sunday, July 20, 2008

How To Say No Without Feeling Guilty by Patti Breitman and Connie Hatch

I read through 'How To Say No Without Feeling Guilty' in recent days. I found it moderately helpful. There is a good overview of why people end up being too accommodating and thereby not saying 'no' enough. There are a variety of scripts which give you at least some words to phrase your no's. The bottom line is, though, to say invariably that you need to check you schedule/other commitments/spouse's schedule for non-work related yes/no requests; and for work related requests you need to present any conflicts to your boss to help establish the priority. The logical flow of work related no's is somewhat lacking here as it is in other books like the Time Trap. (Sometimes you are left with the impression that the authors of these books don't have coworkers and bosses themselves). Additionally, there is no substitute for listening and thinking things through (see Thinking on Your Feet). Consider the exchange which is described in the book, which goes something like 'I have just acquired tickets for a great show, are you free on Friday night?', 'Why, yes, I am', 'Good because I need a sitter!'. This would have been a great opportunity to reply with the standard 'I would need to check my schedule, tell me more...', but sadly that was missed in the book. Anyway, I give it 3/5.
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Sunday, June 22, 2008

How to Make People Like You in 90 Seconds or Less by Nicholas Boothman

A fascinating book! 'How to Make People Like You in 90 Seconds or Less' is heavily NLP influenced. Much thought will be applied to the representational systems of your acquaintances - be they visual, auditory or kinesthetic - if you absorb its lessons. If you want to believe in the NLP theories the following link provides a good summary of the necessary underlying observations to make. Interestingly, if you take a detour and investigate NLP on the web, you find (rapidly) that the founders of NLP tend to disagree with one another on who invented what and when. Dilts, the author of the article linked above, comes in for criticism for possibly having claimed to have invented something, the NLP-founders sue each other quite regularly, and you find that one of the NLP founders (the one with a cocaine problem) has been tried for murder, and happily found innocent. NLP seems to turn its students into zealous practitioners who lead extraordinary lives. But isn't that appropriate for a set of people who have an edge in communication and the art of persuasion? And, returning to the book, so it must have been for Nicholas Boothman. He was a student, got the NLP edge, and is now a teacher - who explains the critical tricks of getting onto the same wavelength as someone else.

If you analyze the book a little you will see interesting aspects of NLP theory. For example, we are told that audiences will judge you based on how you look (55%), how you sound (30%), and what you say (15%). The message in this section is that audience members are homogeneous, largely visual, and oblivious to content. A few chapters later you find that each individual audience member is dominated by their visual, auditory, or kinesthetic input channel. The majority of people are visual, a smaller number auditory, and the smallest group kinesthetic. So at a superficial level this matches with the figures quoted on audience judgment of speakers. However, the input channel theory gets more complicated. Apparently the ordering of input channels is important, so (visual, auditory, kinesthetic) is different to (auditory, kinesthetic, visual). It would be interesting to know whether statistical analysis of conversation (for example) confirm the preponderance of a given sensory input channel for certain people, or whether this is more driven by mood or circumstance than by an innate processing model.

However, Boothman's book is simple and straightforward - it does not take long to read - and it won't make you into a cheesy salesman. It might make you take more time in your communications and think about the other person's or people's perspective and that will be a good thing. The lessons in the book are quite practical and I think that the fiction level is low - so I recommend this book and give it a 4/5.
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Friday, June 20, 2008

Work Less Make More by Jennifer White

Interesting - the types of books and types of things that appeal. A current best seller is 'The Four Hour Work Week' and an earlier book on the same theme was 'Work Less Make More'. Work Less Earn More is filled with common sense advise and is quite appealing - in the grating way of self-help books. For example, it urges that you 'take responsibility for everything in your life, and I mean everything'. The book recommends that you divide your days into three types: laser, support, and free days. This give you an extra day-type over most people (who just have work days and weekends). This is one of the more revolutionary ideas in the book - but unconvincingly this recommendation is quickly followed by the idea that you may need to add a creativity day to the mix. So, you are left thinking that this may all be a little arbitrary - a promoter or marketeer in search of a product to market. Similarly there is a shallow treatment of things that need to be done 'The power of three' - this soon becomes the power of nine if you are trying to follow along and would then soon become more sub-divided. However, if you like this type of read it is interesting. Enough for a 3/5 at any rate.
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Monday, May 26, 2008

The Long Tail by Chris Anderson

I picked up this book in the South Coast Plaza mall a while back and found it fascinating. All around me the well dressed, up and coming, young, middle class professionals and workers of Los Angeles were shopping in stores to find the latest in fashionable goods. Each and every one of them hoping to distinguish their existence from the crowd (and score one over the neighbors) with a deft purchase. (Including the lonely people in the bookstore flipping through books popularizing distribution curves). Each person in that mall had a sense of what they were looking for - not too far from the norm bit not too common either. 'The Long Tail' by Chris Anderson makes the argument (repetitively) that with the advent of the internet we can expect choice to proliferate wildly. What used to be a bookshop with 10 thousand books becomes a choice of over 4 million books in an online store. This is not a new transition. Sears-Roebuck a century ago created a catalog with millions of entries, distributed it far and wide, and leveraged the rail network to exchange the loose change of farm hands across the nation for cheap watches, guns and soap. The enablers of the long tail revolution are reduced advertising and distribution costs (the internet), reduced production costs (particularly for forms of information like music), and increased communication between like minded folk - as fostered by the internet. Although it is hard to disagree that Amazon et al have made finding rare books easier, I could not agree with this as being a radically new trend. The problem is that people do not want to go out on a limb - they want to be fashionable and part of being fashionable is wearing what everyone else is wearing and fitting in. Why are little old corner coffee shops called Starbucks popular? Why do they suddenly become unpopular? To be fair - Chris does not attempt to address the phenomena of fashion but just the fact that the odd choices section of the market will now tend to get larger with time. Chris mentions the 80/20 rule - as in 80 percent of the profits come from 20 percent of the customers - and dismisses it as being no longer relevant in the online world as the cost of production can become vanishingly small for even the rarest informational products. The 80/20 rule mixes units - as Chris points out - the 80 percent refers to profits and the 20 percent refers to fractions of the customer base. So there is no reason that the rule should not be 80/10 - and indeed this is a more common fraction in Chris' (and my experience). The key to profitability would seem to be not in focusing on the key customers (sorry '4 Hour Workweek') but on making sure that costs are as small as possible. All in all, I give this book a 4/5 - mainly on the strength of the tales (no pun intended) about Google, eBay, Amazon and Sears - these are the people who are making 'The Long Tail' possible and making it work.
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Thursday, May 15, 2008

The 4-Hour Workweek by Timothy Ferriss

Extraordinary concepts for workaholics: mini-retirements and non-work related travel. 'The 4-Hour Workweek' shocks further by explaining that working to make a million and then retiring won't actually make you any happier or even more secure - it will just leave you too damaged to be able to appreciate whatever retirement you do manage to afford or survive to experience. The alternative advocated by 'The 4-Hour Workweek' is that you arrange your life and income to allow escape to different parts of the world on a regular basis. A key premise here is that travel is good. If you don't like to travel then you may have a hard time relating to the contents of this book - travel and languages broaden the mind and perspective, Tim asserts, and these activities are to be encouraged and indulged. So the game plan involves developing a product which is sold in specialist magazines or on the web and then working hard (just briefly, don't worry) to make sure that you, the entrepreneur, are not on any of the critical paths of the resulting money making system, (or muse as such systems are termed in the book). The book is full of sensible wisdom, the 80/20 principle, for example (citing Richard Koch), make use of outsourcing whenever possible, and exploiting exchange and labor rate differences. There are many interesting stories and many of them revolve around the concept of outsourcing. For instance, there is the US worker who lost his job to outsourcing in India. He employed assistants in India to find a new job in the US. The assistants promptly fixed his resume, found jobs to apply for and arranged interviews. The US worker had a new job in 30 days (so much for that mini-retirement). I thoroughly enjoyed the book, though the travel emphasis was a little tedious. All in all - I give it a 3/4. It has great ideas - some of them new - it has always been a good idea to stop and smell the roses.
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Monday, May 05, 2008

Thinking On Your Feet: by Marian K. Woodall

As is often the case for interesting books, there are at least two books with this title. In this the aim is to help you handle questions and inquiries. Thinking On Your Feet, by Marian K. Woodall, is a good, quick (about 100 short pages) read. Its simplicity inspires confidence in the material. The basic lessons are as follows:
  • The what and why of thinking on your feet
  • Why do you need to think on your feet?
  • Questions: Closed (yes/no), closed information (e.g., where is the meeting?), open information (what are the themes of the meeting?, how can I help with the meeting?), open (more invitational than questioning, e.g., 'describe at time when', 'tell me about', ...)
  • Answers (answer, build in a clue, e.g., 'The primary factor...', don't talk too much)
  • Easy questions (listen, pause, repeat the question, one main support & clue, stop)
  • Difficult questions, repeat the question, e.g. 'Can you guarantee the impossible?', 'The question is can I guarantee you will have no more Xs? This is, after all, a system and all systems are fallible. However, this is the best system available. I can guarantee that this system will be a tremendous improvement over the current system.'
  • Getting a better question (ask for a repeat of the question, ask for clarification or clarify a term yourself)
  • Hedging (responding to only a selected portion of the question)
  • Negative questions (don't contradict - rephrase instead to emphasize the positive, e.g., 'why can't I have an X?' 'you can have an X if you earn the money for an X'
  • Getting someone else to respond (give them fair warning, and a repeat of the question)
  • Delivery ('I don't know - but I will get you the answer right after this meeting')
  • Job interviews (working your key points into your responses)
  • Opportunities (e.g., have a stock in trade self introduction ready to go, what to do when asked to say 'a few words', etc.)
The chief merits of the book are that it is brief - and it provides good advice. I was disappointed that it did not go more into avoiding panic under pressure - the basic advice is pause before replying - but it is a solid book. I give it 3/5, deducting two points only for the complete lack of mention of the word psychology, lack of flow diagrams, and the matter of fact tone - a feature which many non-fiction adherents may find appealing.
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Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Getting Past No by William Ury

How do you turn confrontation into cooperation? This is the question posed in the author's note to the paper back edition. The answer, according to Ury, is simple but unintuitive. Don't react to threats, don't start negotiating by stating your position, and don't escalate. Getting Past No was originally published in 1991 and has become widely known. So even if you have not read it - someone you know has. (And therefore knowing how not to react to these gambits will be useful in dealing with that well read opponent). Ury's five step program is as follows:
  1. Go to the balcony (i.e., don't react, view the negotiation from outside the stage that you occupy)
  2. Step to their side (i.e., don't attack the opponent, listen and don't argue with your opponent)
  3. Reframe - help the opponent to see the discussion differently ask 'Why is it that you want that?', 'What would you do if you were in my shoes?', 'What would happen if we were to jointly...?' - and then you must be able summarize the words that you are hearing back to your opponent - not changed but in such a way that he understands that you have understood
  4. Build a golden bridge This is where negotiating actually begins - but again not by telling but by exploring options and avoiding declaring any form of victory. The opponent's face must be saved, and his constituents must be able to see why the bridge leads to somewhere better than could have been achieved by following their BATNA (best alternative to negotiated agreement).
  5. Use power to educate If the opponent is still inclined to achieve his end through threats and aggression, you must use your power to educate. However, do this by way of warnings rather than treats ('What do you think will happen if we don't agree?'). Assure the opponent that you are there to achieve a negotiated agreement, and indicate the use of your BATNA only in terms of an illustration or warnings not as a threat that will cause the opponent to lash out.
Although the book constantly talks about avoiding tit-for-tat arguments and avoiding threats, the adversarial nature of negotiations is emphasized throughout by the fact that the opponent is named the 'opponent' (and often referred to as 'she' for some reason in the recorded version of the book). This seems to contradict the aim of the book to turn confrontation into cooperation but it is a small criticism of a 4/5 book.
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Sunday, March 02, 2008

21 Secrets to Success by Brian Tracy

This is a relentlessly simple set of instructions on the ways that things should be done. Not all of the instructions seem correct when you first encounter them - for example there is an insistence on the necessity of working long hours - but in general the effect is a pleasing level of motivating thoughts and ideas (as you would hope from a motivational author and speaker). Brian follows his own advice too. He recommends that the entrepreneur should always be selling, and sure enough, every CD concludes with a recommendation to purchase of one of Brian's products. So he sets a good example, and the majority of his recommendations are simple, make sense and tend to make you take positive steps towards your goals. Brian's tone throughout is quiet and not strident. Brian is not as emotion oriented (or should that be passion oriented?) as Anthony Robbins, but he is convincing nevertheless. The CDs are not as hard to follow as Anthony Robbins' motivational ideas (no anchoring or states). Brian's suggestions are more along the lines of this example (for setting goals):
  1. Take a piece of dated paper
  2. Write 10 goals, written in the present tense, 1 year in the future, as though the goal has been achieved, stating 'I am earning X' or 'I weigh Y pounds (kilos or stones)' (as examples)
  3. Which one goal on this list (if achieved) has the greatest impact on your life?
  4. Take that high priority goal
  5. Plan for this goal's success and set a deadline
  6. Take immediate action on that goal
  7. Think and talk about that goal
Here is another example from the CD on selling, on how to handle objections. The first two items are questions to probe the prospect on the seriousness of the objection. The Feel/Felt/Found response is a classic way to deal with an objection.
  • How do you mean?
  • You obviously have a good reason for saying that. Do you mind if I ask what it is?
  • Many people feel a reservation about the price when they first hear it, they felt that value would not be made up in short period of time, however, they have found that the investment is in fact repaid.
It all sounds simple and it is simple - but it is effective too - I give this collection of CDs 4/5.
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Sunday, January 06, 2008

Uncommon Therapy by Jay Haley

As magazines, bloggers, and radio shows with Agony Aunts are well aware, other people's problems, and how they are solved, make for absorbing reading. So a 300 page plus book of an analyst's favorite cases has to be interesting and this book does not disappoint. Uncommon Therapy provides illustrations of the approaches employed by, Milton Erickson, who helped an extraordinary range of people using his unique techniques. I have wanted to read this book for many years - since I first read 'How to Influence Others at Work' in the 1980s, in fact. Erickson had an ability to use some aspect of a person's mindset to bring about needed change and understanding this facility is a key to persuading and influencing others. The Ericksonian approach to psychotherapy has a achieved a wide level of adoption and has inspired 'brief therapy' and many similar approaches - and more recently exerted an influence on the creators of neuro-linguistic programming. Particularly appealing from the patient's point of view is the fact that the change which the therapist brings to bear with a client does not need to be preceded by protracted analysis or delving for causative pains or underlying damage. Erickson was an efficient therapist. He used the strong convictions of the patient as a point of leverage to change an existing point of perception and response. When confronted with an individual who felt it necessary to carry out a strange action like carrying a religious symbol around the neighborhood or washing endlessly he would seemingly side with the strange view, asking appropriate questions and understanding the perspective, but would also join the patient in changing their actions. So the obsessive action or thought would be modified and the patient would understand that they can control and modify their behavior. As Jay Haley's book makes clear, Erickson did not separate the members of a family and attempt to change people in isolation he would take pains to make each family member a part of the change that a given situation needed. As I read through the examples in the book, I regularly missed a deep understanding of the reasons for Erickson's actions. Sometimes the examples seem like Sherlock homes stories which are obvious only when you know the outcome. Yet, when you reread them you find that Erickson was subtly avoiding inflaming the resistance of the patient at the same time as moving the patient towards needed change. Often Erickson employed subtle hypnotic messaging in his sessions. How well this works in practice one wonders and yet we know that the modern world pervasively immerses its inhabitants in the subtle repetitive messages that influence everyone's actions. I have to confess that I have not had any success as far as I am aware in employing Erickson's methods on myself or anyone else for that matter. However, I don't think that this should be held against the book and I throughly recommend it with a score of 4/5.
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Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Bentley's Royal Pomegranate Green Tea

Given the ubiquity of caffeine in the modern world I thought I would write a short article on how I reduced my dependence on caffeine in general and coffee in particular. In the past I have occasionally given up coffee for a while - only to have to restart its use when I have traveled across time zones for work and found it very difficult to get moving in the mornings - or at other times which work obliged. When I returned from these trips I was again addicted and still out of synchronization with the local time zone and so the addiction remained. However, this holiday season I found myself too idle to fuel the addiction with trips to the coffee shop or grocery store and rapidly depleted the supply of aging coffee beans available in our cupboards. Soon I was obliged to fall back on the Bentley's Royal Pomegranate Green tea bags which have managed to exist for a while in the kitchen without noticeable depletion. Although this tea (and the others I found lurking at the back of the cupboard) tasted terrible - and did not provide the expected caffeine jolt - I managed to last out a few days and continued to avoid the trip to the store. After a week - I had unintentionally given up coffee! This was a surprising result of laziness - and I naturally then thought that I would then consider taking this on as a New Year's resolution. I also thought that it might be worthwhile considering why one might want to give up coffee intentionally - and based on my experience what works in doing this and what to expect while giving up.

As everyone knows coffee does not taste particularly pleasant when your first encounter it. It is bitter, an acquired taste, not something that children typically look forward to. The primary reason for this is that coffee contains a great deal of caffeine. Caffeine is an active compound as far as your brain is concerned - it changes the way that brain responds to natural neurotransmitters and gives rise to a variety of effects which are familiar to coffee drinkers: Increased your alertness, increased energy, reduced sleepiness, and most important when you are addicted, avoidance of the nagging feeling that you 'just need a coffee'. This last effect is the one to watch out for - it indicates that you are habituated to the effects of caffeine and are slavishly seeking the compound rather than the flavor of the coffee. There are a variety of potential benefits of reduced caffeine consumption:

  • Improved sleep
  • Improved digestion
  • Reduced teeth staining
  • Removal of a potential headache trigger
  • Reduction in daily expense
  • Saved time – time not spent in lines waiting for another cup
  • ...and if that isn't enough this link gives many additional motivations
There are also potential deficits in abstinence:

  • Reduced social interaction, on those long lines for example
  • Reduced exposure to possible health benefits caused by the possibly beneficial changes which caffeine (like nicotine) induces

In my case I abruptly gave up coffee substituting tea to ease with the caffeine withdrawal. The caffeine withdrawal did not seem as bad as I might have expected. I had some headaches, some irritability, laziness - but over the holiday period - who doesn't?! I am not sure that these symptoms were worse than might have been expected from normal holiday lethargy and over eating. As I mentioned above, I didn't set out specifically to give up coffee, but once I had started giving up through laziness, I decided to stick it out. And this seems to have worked. The step by step process was:

  • Pick a time when your routine is changed (e.g. a holiday period)
  • Don't replenish your coffee stocks - so that you have no coffee in the cupboard)
  • Arrange to have a small assortment of old and flavored tea bags in the cupboard
  • Resolutely stick to the laziness of not replenishing your coffee supply
  • Get used to the flavored tea
These are the steps that I have followed for the last 10 days - and so far - I appear to be cured of the coffee addiction. A critical danger is no doubt becoming addicted to other things in the place of caffeine - flavored teas, for example. And so far I have managed to avoid this. Today I even became aware of a strange and unexpected benefit - I was able to appreciate (and enjoy) the flavor of the Bentley's Royal Pomegranate Green Tea that accompanied my breakfast. I am excited at the prospect of having broken an addiction! Bentley's Royal Pomegranate Green Tea – it is good stuff – I give it 3 out of 5.
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Monday, December 31, 2007

Eton FR250 hand crank power generator radio

An interesting product came my way this holiday, An Eton FR250 hand crank power generator radio. So far I have resisted the temptation to take it apart - but it is working well. The radio has AM/FM and 7 shortwave bands, it also has a white led light, a red led strobing warning signal, and a siren. I have been impressed with it so far. I haven't yet succeeded in running the batteries down - so either the rechargeable battery is shipped fully charged or the couple of minutes of cranking that I put into it are very efficiently converted into stored power. The radio performance seems good - I can readily get some of the more distant stations from our site - so this may take over as a main AM receiver for me - with or without a power supply. I will update this article with information about the batter life as I obtain more information. A 5/5 product.
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Saturday, November 24, 2007

Nothing to wear

Ah, the fat squashy sound
Of a ripe catalog falling on the mat
Filled with images of the new me
Less bulgy, less needy,
Less nuts and neurotic
With a secret smile
And a cashmere crossover top, £89
In exactly the shade
That will make my life make sense

When it arrives, cuddled in tissue
Like the precious babe it is
The top will take over
Swan into my fat disgusting wardrobe
It will reign supreme
Over the thousand unloved outfits
All suddenly matching
Themselves, each other and me
Ah, what bliss it will be

Promotion at work
Fulfillment at home
Lost socks found
The stew will never burn again
My legs will be as long as a racehorse's
And my lines will plump out like buds in summer.
Come catalog, let's flick your pages, find my card,
Quote size, style, color and ....out of stock and
Discontinued - like my dreams.

The Language of Love - Audio CD by Gary Chapman

A more successful therapist recommendation...(see the review on Happiness at Work). Gary Chapman's 'Language of Love' concept sounds odd to start with. The thesis is that there are 5 quite different ways to express, receive, and understand love: 'Words of Affirmation', 'Quality Time', 'Acts of Service', 'Physical Touch' and 'Receiving Gifts'. This concept helps you understand that not everyone sees the world as you do, and the CDs therefore give you an improved framework for communicating with your partner. The tone of the CDs is folksy and interesting - and I have to give a 4/5 mark - as this is useful material for relationship improvement work.
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