Book Report: The Snowball

It's a biography of Warren Buffet. It's pretty long. But there are some good stories in here, the writing is good, and it smells well-researched. It edges around some touchy topics, but it's pretty easy to tell when that's going on; there are plenty of touchy topics it doesn't edge around, but dives right into.

["Jet" Jack Ringwalt's] first break had come when a bank asked him to guarantee that a bootlegger—presumed murdered—would not return to Omaha, because the presumptive widow wanted to withdraw his account without waiting the legally required seven years. Ringwalt figured the alleged murderer's lawyer might have a pretty good idea whether the missing bootlgger's blood no longer pulsed. He had helped the accused murderer beat the rap, but the dead man's widow (and the bank) suspected that was mainly just good lawyering, not exoneration. Still, the lawyer couldn't say whether his client had confessed to him. So Ringwalt got him to put up some of his own money on the guarantee, on the thory that unless the bootlegger had croaked louder than a bullfrog, the lawyer wouldn't take the risk. Sure enough, the cash told all; the bootlegger never reappeared, and the bank never made a claim...

Puzzlehunt fans even get a relevant phrase: Another Ringwalt story illustrates "Only Game Control thinks that's funny" conflict-of-interest:

...then he put up the stakes for radio-station treasure hunts, hiding the clues in lipstick cases, burying them himself, using clues so obscure that only one prize was ever claimed.

A story about Warren Buffet as he cleaned up after an illegal trading scandal at Salomon Bros: he cut loose a P.R. firm that had been newly hired to shape news about the scandal.

"It wasn't that we're misunderstood, for Christ's sake," said Buffet afterward. "We don't have a public relations problem. We have a problem with what we did."

A note about the power of computer games--as of 1991, Buffet still wasn't using a computer to do his research, his writing, etc. He hung out with Bill Gates who tried to convince him to use a computer, but nothing doing. But he finally started using a computer when his bridge partner told him he could practice (and play) bridge by computer. People talk about Visicalc, but once again, computer games are really what got folks to sit down at the monitor... yeah, anyhow. A fun read.

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Puzzle Hunts are Everywhere, even the world of corporate training... hey, don't fall asleep when I say that

At work, I work in a training group. I was just listening to one of my fellow trainers talk about an outfit that makes some service for education/train-ish folks. It's called Moving Knowledge. It's useful if you've set up some training material for self-paced training.

The system sends the students a message that the educator composes, a message containing an assignment like "Go read the chapter about Thermodynamics. Respond to this message with the word that fills in the blank: The second law of thermodynamics tells us that _____ always increases". It has a few ways it can send messages.
Students reply with answers. If the student gives the right answer, the system congratulates them. Otherwise the system prompts the student to, you know, get it right.
The system sends out more assignments to students as they progress.

And it all sounded to me like, you know, an automatic answer-handling system from a Game or scvngr's software or the control system for some kinds of pervasive games. But repackaged as an educational tool. Neat trick. (Of course, that's probably not how it went. Probably both the educational-messenger and the game-messenger applications are specializations of some general-messenger application. But anyhow. (Or maybe not, as I hunt further around their site, I see mention of them running an alternate reality game.))

Wow, if only the people at work wanted to learn Morse Code instead of parallel computation algorithms, I could probably apply a lot of this puzzle-huntish stuff to my career...

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Book Report: Slack

Today I was that guy on the bus who wears too much scent. Not my fault! An automatic air freshener squirted me. Now I know why "fresh" can mean "offensive". I am very fresh right now, in that sense. Not like the "fresh" in "fresh content". That means "recent". Or as the cool kids call it these days, "real time". As of 7:33pm PDT 2009.08.18 I still smell like a stack of urinal mints, which means that this news is in "real time". This news is as fresh as I smell. You might even be reading it sooner than you would expect. Maybe. Depending on how often you check this stuff.

Blogger (the service which runs this here blog and many others) announced pubsubhubbub support. This means that after I post one of these blog posts, lots of services can find out really quickly. (Well, they could do that before, but it would have involved checking my website really often, which would have been silly, because I don't update that often. But now those services that want to check for recent updates can use one "hub" to keep up with many many web sites. So they can be really fast.) But I can keep writing really slow. Though with all of this "real time" stuff going on, I have to remind myself to maintain slack. That's right, I remembered the topic of this blog post. This is a book report, and it is on Slack. Not as in the stark fist of "Bob". I mean the book about managing software projects.

Slack takes a common-sense view, arguing against various software-development snake oil schemes. It was written back in 2001... so I'm reading it kind of late. I'm not keeping up with the literature in "real time," you see. So, I read about old snake oil. Some of that snake oil is still around, but it uses a different vocabulary now. Folks no longer strive for Quality. (That's Quality with a capital Q.) They do still pour effort into optimizing things that don't need optimizing, using this as an excuse to ignore harder problems. But they don't call that Quality anymore. And since they're looking for excuses to ignore common sense, they'll probably ignore the advice of this book. Oh, what? What's the advice? OK.

Don't work too hard all the time--you'll burn out. Besides, if you need to sprint for a while, you won't be able to speed up if you were already sprinting.

Make middle managers talk to each other, not just to their underlings and overlings. The underlings in group A and the underlings in group B might not be so great at talking to each other. It's good if their managers can talk every so often just to exchange ideas and news.

Oh, there's more but you're probably bored. It's all such sensible advice. Not like the snake oil. Snake oil is exciting, in much the same way that it's exciting to get squirted by an automatic air freshener.

Oh man I hope this stuff washes off.

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Jotting Notes on DeeAnn Soles GC Summit 2009 Presentation: Being GC

[DeeAnn Sole of Team Snout spoke at the GC Summit 2009. You remember when I volunteered on the Hogwart's Game, I followed around this one lady who, operationally, had the whole game in her head? The lady who knew what was coming up, who had to start prepping what, who was out driving where? That was DeeAnn. When she gave this talk, I didn't take notes . I just now watched the video, and this time I took notes. I'm paraphrasing, except the stuff in [square brackets] which is my snide commentary.]

  • Originally wanted to give this talk to let potential GCs know what it was like. But looking out at the audience--it's people who have already run games. Preaching to the choir.
  • Forming a GC Team: People you can get along with. Not just folks from your team. We poach from Drunken Spider and elsewhere.
  • Defining the target. Most important step! [If The Game were a software development project, this would be figuring out the Product Requirements] Figure out what you want. Part of this--make sure everyone on GC has a compelling reason to want to work on this. Think about game style, theme, size, budget, date. Priorities: MUST have, cool, WIBNI.
    • Question wha-you resolve this in one meeting? Answer Nah, it takes us two or three. [This surprises audience] Well, OK, we might be sending ideas around by email for a few months before the meetings. The meetings: getting everyone together in one room, make sure we really are talking about the same thing.
    • Question are these things resolved by the time you're at the "go/no go" decision? Answer More than resolved
  • Next, set up meetings. Snout meets weekly. This keeps up momentum. Some folks are motivated by deadlines--so give them a regular deadline. As game approaches, meet more often. Twice a week. Twice a week plus weekends. In days leading up to game: If you can be here, be here! Please! We're not freaks: bowlers do this leading up to the end of league.
  • Assign folks to each major area
    • Nagger (PM)
    • GameStart
    • Route
    • Puzzles & Activities
    • Theme/Story
    • EndGame
    • Gadget/Software
    • Commo
    • Applications & Pre-Game
    • Money & Logisitics
    One person might do a few things. But for each general area, there's someone responsible for it. [Surjective but not injective... uhm, depending on which way you're flipping the relation around]
  • (Question about applications) I have to set up a system, a fair system, let teams know what the system is. You've been armed with all the information, go to town. I can't choose. It would have killed me to choose between 35 different teams. or 60 team. After our 16th slot in the Hogwarts Game filled up in 16 hours, I was crying trying to figure out how to fit in 4 or 8 more. Until Curtis said "snap out of it!"
  • Go/No go decision: Do NOT announce until after this. Are we still having fun? Can we finish this beast?
    • Question Has there ever been a no-go that meant no announcement? [Yeah, is this question meant to be a question that people might say "no" to? Or does this just make folks commit to the group with witnesses?] I was no-go for Midnight Madness. We have always been positive. For Hogwarts we did have a little bit of a discussion--we were close: I think 5 people were "go" and 3 people were "no go". So we talked about why the "no gos". People were all "This role is too big for me" "I don't think we can get this done" So we reallocated. Sometimes you need to haul on the brakes. Sometimes people need to step out. [And better if they do that early on before you're relying on them for too much]
  • Business-y stuff
    • Whether to get insurance: if something goes wrong, does anyone on GC have something that they can't afford to lose? If so, get insurance.
      • Yours could be the game where someone falls down a mineshaft.
      • In my first game, in Amnesia, one of the players scrambled out on slippery rocks by a crevasse. I'm looking down, there's surf crashing. I'm thinking: if he slides, it is over, we are never going to be able to rescue him. He will die.
      • In Justice Unlimited, I didn't once worry about someone falling down in the park while playing tag and breaking their leg. I worried about people climbing trees, the play equipment--but I didn't once worry about people running in the grass. But it happened.
      So we get event insurance. We get the sport one. In Midnight Madness, it was 25% of our budget--but it was worth it.
      • Remark from Linda Holman, Shinteki to get permission to use some places, you need insurance. Some of them might require that you have some amount of insurance.
      • Question from Burninator Corey does the insurance cost scale with the # of players? Answer the insurance we looked at for Midnight Madness, the cost was the same up to 1000 people. They covered seven days--we only used two. It was $540. Hogwarts was $500, with people going more places. Yeah, and there were sites that needed us to be covered.
      • Question from Burninator Corey You say Team Snout is insured. Is Team Snout a legal entity? Answer Yes. An unincorporated association recognized in California.
      If there's a particular person who's responsible for the game, you might instead go for Personal Umbrella Insurance.
    • Money: we spend it before we get it from teams. GC members end up loaning $ until after game. Submit receipts! If there's going to be something expensive, we put that off until after we get money from teams. But we've been building stuff for months before that.
    • Banks won't take checks that aren't addressed to a real person. (nervous laughter--probably from the Ghost Patrol table). I thought it would be cool if we could take checks for Homicide, but I called up the bank and they said "That's money laundering!" and that was the end of that. You can set up a business entity for your team. Then teams can fill out checks to Team Snout. But it takes time to set up an entity--and effort, and maybe money.
      • Audience suggestion: set up a Paypal account for GC. Behind the scenes, it goes to a person. But to the players, it seems to be going to GC.
      • Chris Dunphy, Radiks question: If GC is trying to stay anonymous, then what? Answer: I've never tried to remain anonymous, I cannot answer this question. [Oh sure, that's what you say when you're on camera.] Answer from Alexandra: You can do a DBA [Doing Business As]. In San Francisco, it costs about $25, and you file a notice in the paper. You can take that DBA to a bank. So... some effort. And some paperwork. And you have to dissolve your DBA when you're done with it. [Hey, why is Chris Dunphy asking about how to anonymously run a game? Has anyone tried putting a tracking beacon on his trailer? How do we know that he's really traveling around the country? could he be faking footage of national landmarks, suspiciously using stills when Cherie appears "in frame", pretending to "travel" there while actually hiding out in a house in Palo Alto, planning a game?]
      • Sean Gugler points out: In Midnight Madness, wanted to remain anonymous for a while. Teams that were accepted didn't know who GC was--until the pre-game Captains meeting "bring your checkbook".
    • Nasty surprise: all that $ that teams pay you? The IRS says that's income. Now, you can also deduct your hobby expenses--but only the part that's over 2% of your adjusted gross income. So if your "real income" was $50K last year, you eat the first $1K of expenses. [Ouch.] IRS cares whether it's a business or a hobby-- Oh Curtis wants me to tell you the professional golfer story or about the writer who was researching prostitutes.
    • Anyhow Team Snout files its own taxes because it's a separate entity. And I think JPT does too. Team Snout is a non-profit. Its taxes are kind of a nightmare to deal with. But it exists separate from any of us. If you think you're gonna do a lot of games, you might want to do that. But it's a lot of effort. You might just want to say "You know what--I'll just pay the money for the hobby."
    • Keep records. So you know who to pay back.
  • When you're feeling overwhelmed: Scale back. Look back at that Priority List. Are you freaking out over a WIBNI? Cut it out. Teams don't know about stuff that isn't there. No one shows up to a Game expecting Don Luskin. Ask for help Game community will help. People not in the game will help--because this stuff sounds like fun. Remember the fun.
  • Quality Control
    • Get a fresh pair of eyes to look. Every single time we didn't do a Quality Control check--it got us.
    • "Only GC thinks that's funny" It always starts with someone saying "Hey, wouldn't it be funny if we made the teams do _____?" Everybody laughs. As soon as you hear everyone around the table laughing, you need the alarm bells to go off in your head. You need to step back and say "Would I want to run naked through a fountain if I was a player?" [No.] Would teams like it? Might someone get arrested? Remember the rules of Team Snout:
      • Nobody dies
      • Nobody goes to jail
      • Nobody bleeds
      ...and sometimes we don't make that, but those are our rules. There was a broken leg in one of the games. And Jeff did injure himself. But other than that...
  • Question from Chris Dunphy any examples of "Only GC thinks that's funny?" Answer Yeah. We had a puzzle where we gave teams a CD and a phone book. In the phone book, we had Red, and in the CD we had Herring. We had people looking at red things for a long time. It was in our first game--we thought it was hilarious at the time--to tell you something was a red herring. But what we actually ended up doing was sending them through every red thing they could find. It took hours.
  • Another disaster: we had someone on GC make a last-minute edit to a puzzle. They checked there own work. Of course there was a typo. So we had to call up every team, go out, fix up their puzzle for them.
  • We had a math error in one of our formulas. That threw our timing off for hours and hours. We wanted every team to see our "showpiece" puzzle--and had to re-route teams on the fly to make that happen.
  • Question from Burninator Corey How many people are on Team Snout for GC? Answer Different each time. Curtis and I. Sean's almost always on. I don't want to get by without seven people. But that's my personal approach--because there will be a lot of activities and I don't want to be responsible for everything. I've heard of teams that have done it successfully with two. I sure wouldn't want to be them, but I've heard of them. Thinking like a PM: If I have more people, we can do more in less time.
  • Question from Burninator Corey You know all this business stuff--how did you happen to end up talking to accountants? Answer I researched on my own. For example, as a non-profit, exempt from California franchise tax. But the California franchise people don't all know this. I know that because I read through the paperwork. Got a frickin scary letter saying that we owed tax--called up tax people, finally got routed to the guy who deals with non-profits, pointed out what kind we were and he said--yeah you're right, they just did your paperwork wrong.
  • Comment from Linda Holman, Shinteki If you're freaking out about insurance or business: you can always ask other GCs.

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Book Report: The Fall of Advertising and the Rise of PR

This book, written by PR consultants tells you why your business is spending too much money on advertising and should spend money on PR instead.

Advertising lacks credibility. E.g., when I see an oil company billboard advertising their nature-loving 'green" activities, that doesn't convince me of much. Advertising does OK at reminding me that those companies exist, though.

This book's thesis is that if you have a new story to tell, you want to use P.R. There are journalists out there looking for new stories. They'd love to hear from you about your new whatsit.

But if you try to use advertising, then (a) you're telling people something new via a medium that they don't trust--they won't trust your story; (b) you're no longer "news" that a journalist can report--why bother to report something that's being advertised widely? So you won't get P.R.-ish publicity.

This book doesn't point out P.R.'s own credibility problems. Plenty of P.R. channels are losing credibility, too. Nowadays, a trusted news outlet is one that warns you where its message is coming from--investigative journalism involving checking more than one source is pretty sparse.

They also don't talk about highly-directed advertising; their criticism is for mass advertising. It's not clear what they think about, say, showing ads for fishing lures on Google searches for [trout]. (But this book was written back in 2002, so I guess that's excusable)

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Book Report: Microsoft Rebooted

This book is about changing a company's culture. It's about Microsoft. It's about Gates and Ballmer shifting the company's culture as they had to comply with the various legal judgments against the company.

According to this book, the original Microsoft culture was based on winning by any means necessary. I don't think that's true. I think that Microsofties with that attitude made many important industry-changing decisions. I think that Microsofties with that attitude made illegal deals with OEMs that abused monopoly power and sank a company I worked for. I'm not denying that such an attitude existed within parts of Microsoft. But I don't think that attitude permeated the company as this book would have me think. I've met too many Microsofties and ex-Microsofties who were happy to win by, you know, creating products that customers wanted.

Anyhow, this book is about how Gates and Ballmer decided to mature Microsoft out of this win-by-any-means-necessary attitude towards another model, a model that would be more stable, more appropriate for a large company. Listening to customers instead of cramming new versions down their throats. To make this attitude shift, Gates had to retire from the CEO position, no-one was going to believe him as the bearer of "nice-guy" guidance. So Ballmer had to step in, because it required a new face to deliver such a new message. And...

Wow, did it really require a massive shift in the company to get people to stop making illegal deals?

This book is based on interviews with high-level executives at Microsoft. I wonder if the "Let's abuse our monopoly powers" attitude was prevalent at the executive level. Maybe the executives thus assumed that this attitude was company-wide? And so they thought they had to totally shake up the company?

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Book Report: On a Roll

This is a book about business, yet it's a good book. It's Howard Jonas' autobiography. He starts out operating a hot-dog pushcart. He moves on to distributing those tourism brochures you see in hotel lobbies. He starts doing a variety of mail-order business. He becomes a telecom mogul. Whoa--that's a leap.

Along the way, you learn about his principles. This is good; he has some principles that I disagree with, but he states them well. It's good to have articulate people to disagree with--they're the ones you're most likely to learn from.

long the way, you see places where he's had to compromise his principles--those are pretty educational, too. And that reminds you that these principles are, uhm, tempered by experience and stuff.

There's a temptation to make a joke about "how the sausage is made", but he doesn't talk about how hot dogs are made. He does give some hints about how to make some superior onions for hot dogs, though.

For example, early on he talks about how he took on a manager to help run a small business. He spotted someone running a deli and thought that someone who could manage a deli could manage just about anything. (I'm oversimplifying, but you get the idea.) I threw a nerd hissyfit. I'm soooo tired of the MBA attitude that someone who can manage something can manage anything. But But Jonas then goes on to point out that this management-skill-transferability... he points out that it doesn't transfer so well for technical teams. Which would explain a few things. It would explain why my past experience on technical teams dealing with managers... uhm, managers best suited to running delicatessens... it would explain why that experience has been poor. But the idea that the transferability works well outside technical fields--that would also explain why the MBAs keep suggesting that it would work well.

It's a good book. It has some good jokes, too. Check it out.

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Book Report: Growing a Business

This is a book about running small businesses. The title says "growing", but it might as well have said "evolving". Hawken is thoughtful and wise, reminding the reader not to take on too many problems at once, to treat people well, to... I'm not running a small business, but there was still some good advice in here, a lot of it is about running your life.

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Book Report: Peopleware

I work for a large company. Thus, there are "leadership seminars" with "team-building exercises." I attended one of those. I was confessing this to some friends on Saturday, and one of them knew exactly what I meant; he asked, "Were there ropes to climb, among trees?" Yes, yes there were. The ropes didn't teach me much about leadership or people skills or teams. Why not? Because belayed rope-climbing is too similar to belayed rock-climbing. The beginner's lesson of rock climbing which is pertinent to leadership/people/teams is: Once you learn that you can trust your belayer, you make rapid progress by putting your energy into climbing instead of clinging. Thanks to Chuck Groom, I'd already learned that. So the ropes were fun but... Well, I didn't learn much there. For more insights on people, I guess I'll keep talking to them. And reading. E.g., I got around to reading Peopleware.

This book is a classic, by which I mean you've already heard most of what it has to say about managing software development. You've heard it second-hand. Reading the book itself is a little strange. Parts of it make little sense unless you drag up history, let your brain nestle into an old mindset.

Why does the book rail against Productivity? Why does it equate productivity with burnout and overtime? Doesn't improving producitivity mean setting up better tools and processes so that people can work more efficiently? Well... back in the day, "Productivity" meant that folks should work longer hours. Japanese car companies were out-producing American car companies. American executives went to visit Japanese executives and noticed that Japanese office workers stayed in the office long hours. (They didn't notice that Japanese assembly line workers were better trained, were encouraged to improve processes, and... Ahem, anyhow.) They came back and said that we should all work harder. Never mind that those Japanese sararimen weren't getting much done. Thus, Peopleware pointed out that short-term benefits from working long hours were offset by folks burning out--something that seems pretty obvious in hindsight, but perhaps seemed less obvious at the time.

They pointed out that projects that operate without time estimates are the most productive.

They pointed out that programmers need to focus and can do so best in offices with doors that close. They spoke out against distractions. In hindsight, I think they overstated the value of closed offices--over-emphasizing bursts of focused work vs. encouraging folks to talk to each other and exchange ideas--at the time, cubicle-bound programmers were subject to plenty of distractions that weren't useful conversations with coworkers.

They talked about how to prevent folks from having their conversation broken by the telephone. People still used voice communication back then. It was sort of like text-messaging, only... Oh, never mind. You kids today will never understand how rough we had it back then.

They talk about Christopher Alexander, the Design Pattern guy. Back when Design Patterns were architecture architecture instead of software architecture. I wonder if this book is what introduced so many software weenies to design patterns.

They talk about Teams, about complementary skills, about people learning to work with each other. Back in the day, did managers feel like workers were interchangeable? I don't know. There's a bulleted list for team formation.

  • Make a cult of quality.
  • Provide lots of satisfying closure.
  • Build a sense of eliteness.
  • Allow and encourage heterogeneity.
  • Preserve and protect successful teams.
  • Provide strategic but not tactical direction.

These seem like things that most of my managers have tried to do. Like I said, you've probably seen most of what this book has to say, you've picked it up second-hand.

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Book Report: DEC is Dead, Long Live DEC

This is a book about DEC, Digital Equipment Corporation, a start up that grew big. The author argues that some of the things that made it a great start-up, a great place to work... these things also were the seeds of DEC's destruction. The company believed in innovation and shipped many products. But it never had a good way to figure out which of these products made money and which were a drain. And there were plenty of drains. Similarly, the company trusted its people to do great work and didn't waste time trying to monitor people. But there were some people who weren't doing great work and some people working on useless things. There was no way to detect these people. The company used the honor system, and it's quicker+easier to get a picture of what the company is doing if you trust the reports of a few managers instead of putting a lot of effort into cross-checking. But once some manager started distorting facts, trust backfired.

While the company did well, these problems weren't serious. The products that did well financed the others. But as microcomputers chased out DEC's minicomputers and the company needed to change, these problems became more important. The lack of clarity about which parts of the company were doing well made it difficult to steer the company towards survival.

This was a discouraging book. It suggests that a company that grows past a certain point runs into some awful problems--problems whose solutions are only mildly better than the problems. I work at a big company. I don't want to spend a lot of time reporting on what I do; just to help fact-check. I don't want to be limited to projects that fit a certain mold so that higher-ups have an easier time keeping track of what the company overall is doing. This book suggests that my attitude might doom my company. I hope it's wrong.

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Book Report: Competing on Internet Time, Breaking Windows

Competing on Internet Time

This book is about the rise of Netscape including competing with Microsoft, contrasting Netscape's nimble pace to Microsoft's slow release cycles. I didn't finish the book. It talked plenty about the business side. Well, it didn't say that much about the business side, but it said it at length. Maybe if I'd kept reading there would have been something interesting about the software development process. But I couldn't stick with it. They kept saying "on Internet time" to mean "fast-paced". The Nth time I read it, I thought Oh, get over yourselves.

I tried looking in the index for bad attitude, it wasn't there.

I gave up and put the book down.

Breaking Windows

This book is about Microsoft's peak and downturn. It comes at the problem from the biz point of view, largely overlooking the technology. I guess. I didn't make it very far in the book. Maybe I would have made it past the discussion of how Microsoft needed to keep growing to sustain itself as a company. I guess it's very engineer-y of me to zone out during business discussions and only perk up when people talk about products and/or technology. I perked up when the book talked about Bill Gates' reason for getting into the software business when most companies were making software only as an excuse to get people to buy their hardware. Gates figured that Moore's law meant that hardware would become a commodity. So he didn't want to get into that business, just software. But in the first something something pages of this book, that was the only time I perked up. Eventually I realized this.

I gave up and put the book down.

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Book Report: Information Development

Last week, I hung out with a lot of technical writers. It was fun. They were from around the world, and they came with some interesting points of view. And with some interesting foreign microbes. Or something. I caught a cold. I think I'm better now. Then again, I thought that yesterday for a while, too. Ah, technical writers, spreaders of knowledge and disease. So I read this book Information Development. It doesn't talk so much about the disease angle, but it covers plenty.

This book is a guide to managing technical writers. You can't teach all of that in just 600 pages. This book is a catalog of things to consider. A few paragraphs about each. Some factors to balance. By following the advice in this book, you could run a great shop or a terrible one. One prejudice does shine through plenty: the author really wants your company to have just one writing organization. Well, maybe she has other prejudices, too. I mostly noticed this one because I disagreed with it. But I do agree with her prejudice towards minimalist writing. She's got a good piece of anecdotal evidence on that (and on the difficulty of measuring the effects of good technical writing):

...the team decided to drastically reduce the volume of the documentation [of an existing product]...

Since the goal was to increase the usability of the documentation, the team members waited with "bated breath" for the results. Once the documentation was released, they were somewhat surprised to learn that the number of customer calls had increased significantly, rather than decreasing as they had expected. However, once they investigated the reasons behind the increase, they discovered that the customers were calling to point out errors in the documentation. In fact, the errors had been in the documents for years. Only with the reduced number of words were the customers reading and finding the mistakes. The result of their innovation was impressive. Customers were using the documentation actively, apparently for the first time.

How many people can possibly want to read this book? How many large technical writing organizations are there out there? I would guess not so many, but apparently there are enough to make a worthwhile market for this book. Maybe that's why the book wants to guide us towards forming big teams of writers--drum up demand for the next version.

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Book Report: Punching In

I guess I can't think of anything to say about how BANG 19 is going that wouldn't give away seekrit stuff. So here's a book report for Punching In.

To research this book, the author worked a few weeks each at UPS, the Gap, Starbucks, Enterprise Rent-a-Car, and maybe some other places I don't remember. Also, he applied to work at a few places and didn't get in. He writes about these service-heavy jobs from the point of view of a loner. Rather, these places seem to require their front-line employees to personify the brand; he wanted to see what the companies do to mold their employees to better smile their way into customers' hearts. But it seems that these companies don't do as much as you might think. At least this was a quick, easy read; Frankel writes well.

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Book Report: Scratch Beginnings

Adam Shepard wanted to see if he could start out in a strange city with just $25 and a bagful of clothes and become a "member of society": have an operational car, a furnished apartment, have $2500, still have room to grow... all within a year. He does it, but he learns some things along the way. He makes his way to a homeless shelter, picks up temp work, scrimps, saves. He meets some interesting people, works some interesting jobs. He does some dumb things along the way, some smart things along the way. It's a quick read; you might check it out.

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Book Report: The Social Life of Information

It was six months when I started looking for work and it was just this last week that I got my first phone screen. There aren't many technical writing jobs in San Francisco, thus phone screens are rare. So I was pretty excited: finally, a chance to eliminate my commute!

Partway through the phone screen, I was trying to convince this company's CTO that he didn't want a technical writer. I don't think I convinced him. I probably wasn't very coherent--I was pretty surprised when I realized "Hey what the heck I am trying to talk this guy out of hiring me!?!" But I couldn't help it; when I talked with him about the project, it sounded like he could get a lot more use out of a short-term contractor writer and a junior programmer. And I said that before I really thought I was disqualifying myself.

And thus I will continue with my long commute.

My job title is "Technical Writer." But that's not my mission. My mission is:

Spread knowledge

Writing technical documents is one way to spread knowledge; sometimes it's the most appropriate way; often, it's not. Sometimes I get so wrapped up in some document that I forget to stick my head up, remember the big picture.

The Social Life of Information is a book about the big picture of spreading knowledge. It was written back in 2000--back when the internet's firehose of information was about to wash away all conventional governments, businesses, economies, societies, and we were all going to live happily ever after. The book points out: new communications technology eases the flow of information around the world, but there's still a "last 5mm" problem--getting that information through a learner's skull.

Lately, I've been working on company-internal documentation. I work for a large multi-national corporation with clusters of software engineers hacking away across the globe. Some group in Dublin figures out a clever way to do something useful. Can we spread that knowledge to other groups? Maybe. Sometimes.

The Social Life of Information touches on many topics. But my current focus caused me to latch onto certain parts. The second half of this book could have been called How Organizations Learn. I kept hitting passages which made me nod my head and say "Right on." Please indulge me as a quote long passages from this book.

...The instability that rapidly-changing technology brings, however, often lies less in the technology itself than in enthusiastic expectations that everything being "just a click away" or "at your fingertips" will make life easy. Battered by such hype, it's easy to believe that everyone except you knows how to use this stuff without a problem.

We saw this pressure at work on a new employee at Xerox PARC. She was intelligent and hard-working, but got mired in difficulties with the office computer system. That system came with the usual promises of "usability" and self-explanatoriness, but she found it impossible to use or understand. Being a newcomer, she was reluctant to keep asking for help. ...

Then chance moved her desk from an isolated office into the center of a group of offices. There she immediately benefitted from... incidental learning... She saw that these "stable" machines crashed for everyone. She saw that there was no more "ease" for experienced assistants, long-time employees, or PARC's hallowed computer scientists than for her. And she also saw that when a machine did crash, its user would without shame look around for help from someone else who, whatever their status, had successfully steered around that particular problem. No one person knew how to handle these temperamental machines. But spread around the office was enough collective knowledge to keep them up and running.

This story makes me cringe. She didn't report these crashes to the people who could fix them? Surely, there should be a way to report the crashes--along with documentation of "known problems"-- a-and with workarounds for those problems! Surely we should solve this problem with tons and tons of documentation. Then I calm down a bit. It takes effort to document things, to maintain that documentation. How much time should she have put into trying to track down where each crash was coming from, coming up with a good report? Who would be in charge of tracking the known problems? That takes effort, too. When you hire someone for some random job, you don't tack "...and must write excellent bug reports" onto their job requirements. It would be nice if these people carefully tracked down every defect, but it's not a realistic hope.

[When Alexander Graham Bell was promoting use of the then-new telephone]... The company needed, Bell argued, to abandon specialists and specialist training and put the phones in people's hands. In the right circumstances, the practicality of the device would do the rest. So he crafted the circumstances. ... [The company] put phones near lunch counters. That way, it reasoned, people who didn't know how to use them would be likely to see people who did know how and in this way learn about the phone system.

Later, they mention that one thing that helps people learn how to drive motor vehicles: before they learn how to drive, they've probably been a passenger many times, watching someone else drive. It's almost an apprenticeship system.

Another interesting section...

An anthropologist, Orr, studied the Xerox technical representatives (reps) who service and repair the company's copiers at customers' sites. ...

The company tried to provide the reps with the targeted information they would need. [It provided training and documentation.] ...

Everyone knew what reps did. But Orr argues forcefully that work is rarely well understood. Neither management nor management theorists, he points out, are adequately "concerned with work practice," by which he means they "do not focus on what is done in accomplishing a given job." He was not surprised, then, to find out that what looked quite clear and simple from above was much more opaque and confusing on the ground. Tasks were no longer so straightforward, and machines, despite their elegant circuit diagrams and diagnostic procedures, exhibited quite incoherent behaviors. Consequently, the information and training provided to the reps was inadequate for all but the most routine tasks they faced. ...

The reps' real difficulties arose, however, not simply because the documentation had lapses. They arose more problematically because it told them what to do, but not why. ... So when machines did something unpredicted, reps found themselves not just off the map, but there without a compass or tools for bushwhacking. ...

Orr begins his account of the reps' day not where the company process begins--9 o'clock at the first call--but at breakfast beforehand. From a conventional perspective, the reps' job was highly individual. Routine work was carried out alone... Yet Orr found that the reps were remarkably social, getting together on their own time for breakfast, lunch, coffee, or at the end of the day--and sometimes for all of the above.

...At these meetings, while eating, playing cribbage, and engaging in what might seem like idle gossip, the reps talked work, and talked it continuously. They posed questions, raised problems, offered solutions, constructed answers, and discussed changes in their work, the machines, or customer relations. In this way... they kept one another up to date with what they knew, what they learned, and what they did.

If I really want to spread knowledge around my company, should I write another document? Or should I offer to take care of an engineer's pet budgie for a week, freeing that engineer to travel to a remote site and sit down to lunch with a different group of people?

Reps tell stories about unsolved problems in an attempt to generate a coherent account of what the problem is and how to solve it. They may do this individually, putting their own story together. Or they can do it collectively, as they draw on the collective wisdom and experience of the group. ...

While it may appear at first that the reps used stories to circulate information, they were actually doing much more. For it is not shared stories or shared information so much as shared interpretation that binds people together. In their storytelling, the resps developed a common framework that allowed them to interpret the information that they received in a common light. To collaborate around shared information you first have to develop a shared framework for interepretation. ...

Before you can describe your day to someone, you need to understand your day and that someone needs to understand your vocabulary of description.

As a result of Orr's work, rather than trying to support the reps with yet more information from outside the reps' community, Xerox instead turned to reinforcing internal ties. The first step was simple. Reps were given two-way radios, which allowed them to continue to talk to one another even when working apart. This intervention both supported and acknowledged the reps' ways of collaboration, narration, and improvisation.

The second step was more ambitious, but it too reflected the resources the reps provided for themselves and tried to amplify this resourcefulness. Though passed on in war stories, the insight reps developed in the course of their work tended to have a short reach, traveling primarily in local groups, and a short life, fading from memory even locally. Consequently, reps near and far ended up reinventing fixes that might have been known elsewhere. The Eureka project set out to create a database of this useful knowledge, preserving over time and delivering over space resourceful ideas.

I.e., rather than giving them the effort of a writer, it was more useful to give them a tool that made it easy to record knowledge themselves. Maybe your organization needs a scruffy wiki more than it needs another polished document.

...To maintain a competitive edge, firms first search for the best practices either within their own or in their competitors' units. Once identified, they then transfer these to areas where practices are less good. The search part has led to a a great deal of useful benchmarking. The transfer part, however, has proved much more awkward. ... the now-famous lament of HP's chairman Lew Platt, as he considered how much better the firm would be "if only we knew what we know at HP."

Spreading knowledge ain't easy. Some moves, but a lot of it slips between the cracks.

Another colleague, Jack Whalen, showed the power of practice in his study of learning in a service center taking the calls from customers and scheduling technicians. ...the people who take the calls can save the company money by diagnosing simple problems and telling the customer how to fix these for themselves. ...

The phone operators are not, of course, trained as technicians. In the past, however, they learned from the reps when the latter called in to pick up their next job. The reps would then explain how trivial the last one had been, and in the process the phone operators could learn a lot from these mentors. When they next took such a call, they could offer such a solution. ...technicians no longer pick up calls this way. Consequently, operators no longer pick up insights. ...

The company has tried to replace this kind of learning with the more explicit support of a "case-based expert system." ... This alternative has not worked well. As the reps found with "directive documentation," it can be surprisingly difficult to get a clear diagnosis and solution this way. Moreover, such a system doesn't help the operators understand what they're doing. ... the company contemplated new training courses...

Whalen and his fellow researchers took a slightly different route, however. They studied one service center and the quality of diagnosis its staff provided. There they found two operators who gave especially reliable answers. One, unsurprisingly, was an eight-year veteran of the service center with some college experience and a survivor from the days when reps served as mentors. The other, however, was someone with only a high-school diploma. She had been on the job barely four months.

The researchers noticed however, that the newcomer had a desk opposite he veteran. There she could hear the veteran talking calls, asking questions, and giving advice. And she began to do the same. She had also noticed that he had acquired a variety of pamphlets and manuals, so she began to build up her own stock. Moreover, when she didn't understand the answers the veteran gave, she asked him to show her what he meant, using the service center's own copier.

...Ultimately, Whalen concluded, given the amount and level of knowledge already available in the room, what the operators needed were not so much expert systems or new training courses but "longer phone cords." (These allow an operator taking a call to slide over to the desk and the screen of a resourceful colleague who could provide the necessary help.)

Documentation wasn't useless in that story. The veteran had pamphlets and manuals. But the documentation wasn't enough, couldn't stand on its own.

We see two types of work-related networks that, with the boundaries they inevitably create, are critical for understanding learning, work, and the movement of knowledge. First, there are the networks that link people to others whom they may never get to know but who work on similar practices. We call these "networks of practice." Second, there are more tight-knit groups formed, again through practice, by people working together on the same or similar tasks. These are what, following Lave and Wenger, we call "communities of practice." ...

Great, new buzzwords with which I can bewilder my colleagues. Maybe if I say "network of practice" enough times, I'll irritate my co-workers enough such that I can trick them into reading the book just to find out what I'm talking about.

...In a similar vein, Saxenian draws attention to the importance of social forces to the development of Silicon Valley that both encourages and is encouraged by the networks of practice that run between companies. By contrast, the companies of Route 128 discouraged fraternization between firms. This insularity not only cut firms off from their ecology but also prevented the ecology as a whole from developing. ...

Promoting internal communication is good; don't forget to pull in people from the outside, though. I work for a big, growing, company. I could talk to a different brillant co-worker every day and never run out. If I did that, it would be tempting to forget the many brilliant people outside the company that I wasn't talking to. It's easy to fall into the trap of provincialism.

Gee, I'm tempted to just type the whole book into this blog entry, but my fingers are getting tired and that would probably violate copyright, so I'll stop here. I'll just recommend that you read this book. But not on this blog post. Oh, poor tired fingers.

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Book Report: Making Globalization Work

This book is worth reading. That's unfortunate; it has about 30 pages of interesting material scattered amongst 300 pages of verbiage. It's a book about Globalization--mostly about opening up markets between nations and about international aid. The author, Stiglitz, was on the IMF, but he's dour about how globalization has proceeded so far. What went wrong?

Protectionism and corruption.

This example is vague and hand-wavy and I'm getting the details wrong. I'm too lazy to slog through that book again to pick out the correct details. Nevertheless, here goes: Some treaty comes along "opening up markets" between the USA and some developing nation. There is much fanfare. Someone paying close attention will notice that the USA hasn't agreed to open up all markets, just 97% of markets. Well, that's mostly an open market, right? Except that the 3% that the USA leaves closed is... the small intersection of the USA's industry and the developing nation. Under the treaty, Bangladesh can import anything to the USA except cloth... which is the only thing Bangladesh makes that's also made in the USA. The USA's open-ness towards the fanfared "free trade" is lip-service.

He mentions USA cotton as a protected industry. That's pretty sad--cotton farming has been pretty bad for California, gobbling up the precious fresh water of our desert state. Shutting down California cotton water subsidies sounds like a fine idea to me. Importing cheap textiles from Bangladesh sounds like a fine idea to me. But that won't happen as long as politicians can be bought.

He also pointed out a hole in my don't-worry-about-kleptocracies-privatizing-government-because-kleptocracies-are-screwed-anyhow thinking. It doesn't make much difference if a kleptocracy sells an industry or bleeds it for cash over several years. But what about a short-lived kleptocracy? If they can sell off the national assets for quick short-term gain, they will. After the thieves retire to their dachas on the Black sea, that stuff is gone. If those thieves had just skimmed government funds instead, then when they were chased out, the government wouldn't be hurting so hard.

Anyhow, the gist of the book is to please slaughter all:

  • Protectionists;
  • People seeking to extend copyright
  • People and organizations who loan money to developing nations only if those nations are willing to shut down all services that help nations develop

...only I don't think he used the word "slaughter".

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Book Report: In Search of Stupidity

I'm not working on gPhone the Open Handset Alliance. There were various internal recruiting drives for the project; I slunk away from those, kept my head down. I've worked on some mobile phone platforms. Lately, I've been working on other things. Mobile phones were interesting, but it turns out that these other things are pretty interesting, too. Still, there are memories.

The first of those mobile phone platforms was made by a company called Geoworks. Ah, Geoworks. The name brings back waves of nostalgia. But it's a rue-tinged nostalgia. Like, there's some rue mixed up in that first mobile phone platform. It was pretty advanced, it ran pretty fast, seemed to be engineered better than the competition. But then all of the deals went away. A competitor had turned their platform into a standard which many companies would contribute to--an alliance, as it were. In the end, most of those allies didn't use the software, but it took those allies a while to figure out what they would do, software-wise. Meanwhile, they sure weren't buying Geoworks' software. Eventually, most of those allies fell away from the alliance; Is Nokia the only one left? Anyhow. That alliance was Symbian. Recently the CEO of Symbian was described in the news as not being too worried about the Open Handset Alliance. Was he really being disparaging--or does he know how hard it is to keep an "alliance" of mobile phone companies to cooperate?

Ah, Geoworks nostalgia tinged with rue, woven through with rue.

GEOS didn't start out as mobile phone software. It started as an OS for x86 machines. You know, PCs. Microcomputers. Going up against Microsoft? What could we have been thinking? Which reminds me: I am supposed to be writing this book report on the book In Search of Stupidity. (This might be a good time to mention that my opinions are mine. My opinions are not my employer's. My opinions are not my now-defunct ex-employer's--any of them.)

Joe M. at work recommended this book. It has some fun anecdotes from the early days of microcomputers. Back when PCs were called microcomputers. Back when all PCs were not necessarily called "PCs". Anyhow. I liked it plenty. Then again, I am a geek of a certain age and thus remember some of the products described. The book's theme is marketing blunders. But (as noted in an afternote), it's hard to narrow blame marketing for all of these blunders. In one anecdote, the company fires all of the engineers... and has trouble marketing future updates. Is that bad marketing?

The most flattering part of this book is in the chapter on OS/2. It talks about how plenty of software companies wasted plenty of effort to port their software to this OS... to no benefit because that OS never really took hold. That wasn't the flattering part. What was the flattering part? The book, a book about stupid companies, mentions my old employer Geoworks, but does not call it out as a stupid company. Yay.

At this point, IBM still had the ability to checkmate Microsoft's plans for Windows. One way was to buy a new OS from a company called GeoWorks. The company had developed a highly optimized product with a slick GUI that could run in a small hardware footprint; GeoWorks ran with amazing alacrity even on the original IBM PC. This was the path favored by [IBM's] Desktop Software division.

The book doesn't mention that Geoworks actually worked on implementing the Presentation Manager look and feel on top of GEOS. (I'm probably getting the details wrong there. But we were doing something like that for IBM.) The theme of that chapter in the book is Companies that IBM Tricked Into Wasting Effort on Presentation Manager and OS/2. I think IBM paid us for our work, though. If we were getting paid, that means our effort wasn't wasted, right? I sure hope so. I think the main lesson we learned was: Never work on a project codenamed "Wizard". It's always bad news.

What, the book? You wanted to hear about the book? Oh, the book is good in some places, other places you might want to skim. The best places are the first-person anecdotes. The author, Rick Chapman was employed with some kooky characters at some of these early microcomputer software companies. Reading about them... you just can't look away from the trainwreck.

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Site Update: Updated Resume

I updated my resume.

If you know about any tech writing jobs in San Francisco, please let me know. Yes, in San Francisco. No, I don't think that's very likely. But it's worth asking!

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Book Report: Just for Fun

cranea17:/evidence> ls
What do you think this is, UNIX?

I think that's funny, but that's because I spend a lot of time in UNIXoid environments, specifically Linux. I'm biased. Maybe that's also why I enjoyed the book Just for Fun. It's a biography of Linus Torvalds so far. Well, not even so far--it was written back around 2000. Since Linus is mostly known as the guy who got the Linux kernel started, most of the exciting material is from 1990-2000.

Linus is not a wildly exciting personality, and that's part of why this book is so inspiring. Famed internet gadfly Eric Raymond is quoted as saying that part of Linus' appeal was that he was "less visibly odd than a lot of other hackers." I interpreted that to mean "Linus isn't an obnoxious jerk like RMS." (In RMS' defense, I've never met him; my accusation of obnoxiousness is based only on second-hand reports.) In fact, reading about Linus is a lot like reading about any of a number of other geeks you might know.

He wasn't so special. He liked to tinker, he chose an interesting project, he followed through. When other people had suggestions, he took many good suggestions. And thus he made the world a better place. Maybe you could do that too.

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Book Report: Against the Gods (the Remarkable Story of Risk)

Last night, I went out to a musical performance dealie. It was TV on the Radio. I'd heard their most recent album, and it seemed OK but not great. But Rob Pfile wanted to go see the show. Rob has pretty good taste, so I went to see the show too. Wow, they're good live. I'm glad I went despite my earlier misgivings. Sometimes risk is rewarded. Oh, right, that was my point. I read a book about the history of risk.

Specifically, it's a book about the history of math, probability, statistics, actuarial science, and thinking about risk. The math part--the early history when the whole idea of probability hadn't really emerged--wasn't much fun because it was a bunch of material that I halfway knew already. But the later chapters contained more things that I didn't know. If the idea of a history of statistics doesn't appeal to you, you probably won't like this book. I liked it. I'm not sure how much of it I retained, though.

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Book Report: The Best Software Writing

This weekend has been hectic. I attended a Game Control summit. I haven't listened to the audio I recorded. It could be interesting; it could be white noise. I stopped by the start of the Chinese New Years Treasure Hunt; post-hunt reports say that this one was less suck-tastic than the previous one I visited. Today, I worked on making a video with an unlikely number of Freunds. I guess I'm not going to find the time to write about any of this in the next few days. And my Chicago photos are lurking in a corner somewhere. And.. and... and after this weekend, I think I need a second weekend to recover. Meanwhile, please enjoy this pre-recorded book report about The Best Software Writing.

I finally got around to reading this collection of belles e-lettres. I felt a little silly paying for a book that basically printed articles which were available for free online. Then again, I was thankful to the editor for digging through lots of crappy writing about software development in order to unearth the good ones. So I bought a copy, and hopefully a nickel of royalties and karma will trickle over in the right direction.

Oh, the book. The book is about programming and projects and working together. That "editor" link up there links to the introduction. It also has a list of the articles if you want to seek them out and read them online.

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Book Report: Guanxi

This book is about how Microsoft set up a research lab in Beijing. This was a pioneering effort. China's economy had opportunities for kids who wanted to Make Money Fast in computing--but not so much for kids who wanted to do basic research. Microsoft came in, set up a lab, set up a sounds-weird-to-me-but-apparently-normal-in-China program where Microsoft Research could issue their own academic degrees. If you think you might want to read about something like that, this book is pretty interesting. If you would cross the street to avoid reading about something like that... uhm, this book won't win you over. I thought it was pretty interesting.

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Book Report: A Perfect Red

Blogger just enabled full editing of templates in the new Layout system. It's different from the old Blogger template system. I played with an early version of it, and I like it a lot better. It was pretty easy to come up with a template that made things look pretty. Or that looked like an old "green screen" monitor, which is perhaps even better than looking pretty. Working with one of the starter templates even taught me some neat stuff about CSS. But blogs about blogging are dull. You're here for the book reports. So as long as we're talking about ways to make things look pretty, maybe this is a good time to talk about A Perfect Red, a book about making things pretty.

Specifically, this was a social history of cochineal, a dye made from insects that feed on nopales. Yes, those same nopales that are so nice when marinated and rolled up in a burrito. But in this book, they're called "nopals". I never saw the spelling "nopals" until I read this book. I guess it's the official English spelling, but that no-one uses the official English spelling. That is, when I conduct a Google internet search for [nopales], I get a quarter million results, but no little "define" link letting me know that I can look this word up in an online English dictionary. When I search for [nopals], there are 800 results, but there's a "define" link. I guess more burritophiles need to take more lexicographers out to lunch more often.

What--oh, the book? The book had some interesting stories of industrial espionage and botany as various gringos attempted to smuggle the secret of cochineal out of Mexico. The book also had some long passages describing What the Color Red Meant to the People of the Time. Maybe that's nice if you're into that sort of thing, but I was happy to skim that part.

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Book Report: The Search

Just a few hours ago, my weekend plans were so simple.

  • Put the excellent game PsychoNauts into my backpack so I remember to bring it home from work.
  • On the way home from work, stop off at BlockBuster video to rent an XBox video game machine.
  • Go home.
  • Plug in TV. See if TV catches fire. (A few months ago, I was moving furniture in my apartment. I tipped a bookshelf over on my TV. I haven't tried using the TV since then. It's probably fine. But maybe there's a short-circuit in there; maybe it will catch fire.)
  • See if I can figure out how to hook up the XBox to the TV. This may not be possible at all. I don't know anything about the provenance of this TV. During the depths of the dot-bomb, my neighbor, like me, could not find a job. So he moved back to the East Coast to live with his dad. He gave me his TV so that I could have some entertainment during my own unemployment. How old is this TV? What are its inputs? I don't know.
  • Play PsychoNauts.
  • Achieve bliss.

This simple plan just got simpler: It turns out that Blockbuster doesn't rent out XBox machines. I wonder why I thought they did. Maybe they used to. Maybe I'm just an ignoramus. I tried calling up EB Games. They don't rent XBox machines, either.

How will I play this game? What am I doing this weekend?

But that does not help you, dear reader. How can I help you? Are you here for the book reports? I can share my opinion of John Battelle's The Search. What is that opinion? The Search is worth skimming, but not worth reading.

In ten years or so when kids ask me "What was life like back when the web was young?" I can hand them this book. But if you lived through that time, this book is 95% full of stuff you already know. You might want to borrow the book to get the other 5%.

Some fun facts from my 5%:

  • It is much cheaper to acquire customers by being search-findable than by sending email spam according to some report by some organization named Piper Jaffray. Not just more ethical. It's cheaper. Spammers are evil and dumb.
  • The Yahoo! founders' first(?) web-crawling project scraped sports statistics from many places. The goal: Winning a fantasy football league.
  • The people think that mixing paid search listings with regular search listings is a feature, not sleazy. They see it as the web parallel to the yellow pages. They don't think of the yellow pages as sleazy.
  • During the Google IPO, Google opened up stock bidding to a large auction. Brokers specializing in IPOs criticized Google for this. This criticism did not say, "I, a fat-cat IPO broker, am upset. Why did those Google jerks use an auction? All the other high-tech companies let me run my own little exclusive auction. I sell stock cheap to my fat-cat frat buddies and then we sell the stock at high prices to regular investors. We all get mansions. It's great. Doesn't Google like the old boy network?" Instead, the criticism said, "Google is arrogant." (Remember folks: just because someone despises you doesn't always mean that they're arrogant. Sometimes it means you're despicable.)
  • When something strange happens to the Google index, people suffer. One year during an index change, stopped showing up in the top search results. The business nearly went under. The business owner tried to find out what was going on, but no-one at Google replied to him. Google needs to work on communication.

Hmm, that mention of fantasy football reminds me that I want to read something about football pools.

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Book Report: The King of California

This book by Mark Arax and Rick Wartzman ranks up with Cadillac Desert and City of Quartz as great books about the intersection of geography and history in the Western USA. It's about the history of the huge farms of the San Joaquin valley, especially those of the Boswell clan.

These farms used to flood plenty. There were some large government-built dams up in the mountains, but the dams didn't work so well, and farms got flooded. This tended to wash out smaller farmers: if you owned more land, you had a better chance of not being 100% flooded, and you could harvest a crop. If you only had a small farm, maybe this year it was all underwater and you were out of luck. If you were a small farmer, chances are one year you'd get flooded and sell out--to a larger farmer. The big farms got bigger. The descriptions of the size of Boswell's holdings wash over you. You can't take them in.

When the floods come, will one farmer build levees to divert onrushing waters away from his farm and onto his neighbor's land? Of course.

As of 1925, farmers in the San Joaquin valley were only allowed to grow one variety of cotton: alcala. So if you encourage cotton farmers around there to try some biodiversity, you're inciting them to break the law.

Before there was a United Farm Workers, there were striking farmers in the San Joaquin valley. If I steal your watch and give you a dollar, that is not sale, that is theft. If I point a gun at you and tell you to work for a low wage, that was SOP at old California cotton farms. And so there were strikes, and farmers turned to corrupt government officials to keep the workers working. My grandfather died a few months back, and at the memorial service it came out that he'd done some things help farm workers back in the day. What, the United Farm Workers? No, before that. Reading this book, I found out that the farm workers of the San Joaquin valley were a popular cause in their day. People would send trucks full of food to help striking workers--and local law enforcement would hijack the trucks to help starve the workers into submission.

Before the Boswells and the other big farmers came along, the valley Tulare Lake, a huge disease-infested reed-filled body of water. A lot of people got sick there. Maybe it's not the fault of factory farming that the valley has gone to hell. Maybe it was always hell.

Plenty of transplanted Southerners, white and black, ended up in Southern California after the civil war. They brought cotton farming with them. Racism in the valley was not as bad as that in the American South--but there were echoes there, incidents which any Southerner would have recognized.

Fans of Cadillac Desert: how do these huge farms, growing crops for which the USA runs a surplus, get cheap water from government-built dams? The history is fascinating, if infuriating.

James Boswell, head of the company as of the time the book was written, is a huge donor to the Nature Conservancy. He's big on Ducks Unlimited. When someone at his company killed millions of fish and birds by dumping poison into a waterway, the company tried to cover it up, and escaped punishment. So maybe Boswell likes nature but doesn't let that get in the way of sloppy farming techniques?

In short, this book touches on many topics. I recommend it to Californians everywhere.

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Book Report: Why We Buy

Reading this book in 2005 was a waste of my time. When this book was first published back in 1999, it was probably pretty interesting. So interesting that everyone was talking about it. So I had already heard all the good bits from this book by 2003. Oh well. The author, Paco Underhill, wrote something else in 2004. I haven't heard 20 bazillion people talking about it. Maybe if I read it, I'll learn something. Then again, if that book is by a bestselling author and it came out over a year ago, why haven't I heard 20 bazillion people talking about it? Maybe it was awful.

Consumer lesson: Larry follows the crowd. Sometimes years behind.

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