Sunday, December 2, 2012

Mini-Reviews of Books Read, November 2012

Reviews of books read last month: two novels, and two popular science
books, and a business book about Apple.

Sorry if the reviews are a bit long - I didn't have time to make them

1. "The Age of Miracles" by Karen Thompson Walker

This novel is set in suburban California in the near future.  Julia,
the narrator, reflects on when she was an 11 year old girl.  Without
warning, the earth's rotation has begun slowing down, meaning the days
are gradually getting longer.  It's not only the clocks that are getting
out of kilter.  The earth's gravitation and magnetic fields are also
changing, with birds having problems flying and other animals struggling.

After the initial shock of the unexplained changes, people adopt two
conflicting strategies to deal with "the Slowing".  "Real timers"
decide to accept the lengthening days and nights, synchronising
themselves to the new cycle.  But the majority follow the government's
decision to persist with "clock time".  Businesses and schools continue
to run on the old 24 hour clock, and people sleep whenever their clocks
say it's "nighttime".  The minority real timers are soon regarded with
suspicion.  Shunned by the clock timers, they voluntarily relocate to
desert communities where they can live as they please.

It's against this backdrop that Julia tells us her story.  She continues
to go to school, play soccer, and take piano lessons.  Her best friend,
Hanna, moves to Utah with her Mormon parents when news of the slowing
breaks.  They return a few months later, but Hanna decides to hang out
with other, cooler, kids.  Julia's mother, develops strange symptoms:
nausea, dizziness and sometimes blackouts.  She, along with many other
people, has developed "the syndrome".  Her father is a doctor, and has
been having an affair with her piano teacher.  As Julia tries to cope
with all this, her twelfth birthday comes and goes, and she develops a
crush on a boy.

Overall, this is an interesting and well-written story.  At the risk of
spoiling the ending, I want to point out there is no climactic crisis
conveniently resolved by the intervention of the main character.  This
isn't a Hollywood-style blockbuster sci-fi epic.  On the big-picture
level, it's speculative fiction about how society must adapt to global
changes.  But at its heart it's a personal story, about a girl who must
adapt to the changes that will inevitably lead her to adulthood.

2. "Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking"
   by Susan Cain

Between a third and a half of all people are generally introverts.
The author of this book argues it's important that introverts are
accepted for who they are, and not be expected to make themselves
more "normal" (i.e. extroverted).  In fact, she argues that the are
many benefits to society from having introverts.  A lot of art,
music and other creative works are produced by introverts, along
with many scientific and technological breakthroughs.

The purpose of book is to redress the mainstream prejudice of focusing
on the positive aspects of extroversion and the negative traits of
introverts.  The author uses research into psychology, neuroscience,
philosophy, genetics and biology to look at what makes many people
behave in a quiet, introspective way.  There are some less than
desirable aspect of extroverts, such as impulsiveness and big-talking.
She critiques the emphasis on creating environments geared towards
extroverted behaviour.  Schools, workplaces and other places have
become tailored to meet the stimulation needs of extroverts: group
work, open plans, constant noise and busy-ness help satisfy the
extroverts' craving for constant stimulation, but are stifling for
introverts.  Introverts are usually hypersensitive.  They prefer
listening to speaking, thinking to acting, caution to knee-jerk
reactions.  In some cases, working in groups can lead to bad outcomes,
for example committees and groupthink.

The author argues that it hasn't always been an extrovert-centric world.
Before the modern era, there used to be a "culture of character".  In
the early 20th Century, a new "culture of personality" emerged.  People
who could sell themselves (as well as products) became the new role
models.  This shift hasn't happened in all cultures: for example, until
recently, children of Asian backgrounds are still lauded for having
quiet and studious natures.

It should be noted that nobody is purely introverted or purely
extroverted.  Most people are actually ambiverts, exhibiting behaviour
on a broad spectrum of introversion/extroversion.  The behaviour often
changes depending on circumstances.  The author provides advice for
introverts on coping in a world geared towards extroverts and
extroversion.  She argues that we should accept that solitude is
important, and that people deserve to receive the optimal level of
stimulation for their personality type.

If you're time-poor, check out these video/audio links:
* RSA: Quiet: the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking
* RSA Shorts - The Power of Quiet
* Little Atoms Podcast (April 6, 2012)

3. "The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty" by Dan Ariely

The author is a professor of psychology and behavioural economics.  In
this book he explains the findings of research into dishonesty.
Conventional economic theory, where people are expected to always act
rationally, would suggest that we would try to maximise what we can
get away with after weighing up the cost of getting caught.
Fortunately, this "simple model of rational crime" does not appear
to hold up: people don't take every available opportunity to act
dishonestly, so another explanation for dishonest behaviour is required.

The author argues that most of the time we want to do the right thing,
or at least be seen to do the right thing, even if we could get away
with it.  But the available research paints a very intriguing picture.
It appears the dishonesty equation is rather complex.  Given the chance
of getting away with something, scot-free, people do often act
dishonestly.  But just a little bit.  By cheating just a bit, we can
still regard ourselves as being nice.  This "fudge factor" is an
example of cognitive dissonance, which allows us to rationalise away
behaviour we know is wrong.

These findings are based on repeated research experiments, asking
people to solve problems for financial gain.  The researchers compare
controls with results obtained by varying levels of self-reporting and
opportunities to cheat.  They examined many factors which encourage or
discourage cheating.  It turns out that moral codes, pledges of honesty,
reasonable supervision, and minimisation of temptation can reduce the
likelihood of cheating.  But if the environment encourages dishonesty,
almost anyone will misbehave (for example Enron and Wall Street banks).
There are several risk factors to watch for: conflicts of interest, the
apparent distance between action and consequence, and depleted will-
power.  Even knowingly wearing fake designer clothing or sunglasses can
increase the likelihood of dishonest behaviour.  This explains the
"slippery slope", or the "what the hell" effect.  Paradoxically, two
things that don't appear to affect honesty are the amount of money to
be gained and the probability of being caught.  All these factors
affecting honesty, are neatly summarised in a diagram in the last
chapter (page 245, figure 6 - reproduced at:

The experiments have been conducted world-wide, with no appreciable
evidence that people from different cultures are more dishonest.
Environment is a bigger factor.  As mentioned before, the "distance"
affects ability to rationalise cheating: it's harder to accept stealing
cash, but easier to fiddle with complex securities far removed from
investors.  There's an interesting link between creativity and
dishonesty.  And it seems some religions practices, such as Catholic
confession and Jewish atonement, are quite effective is reducing
dishonesty.  This is because they allow the opportunity to ask for
forgiveness, and permit sinners to turn over a new leaf.

Other interesting books by the author: "Predictably Irrational" and
"The Upside of Irrationality".

If you don't have the time to read, check out the video and audio from
Ariely's appearance at the RSA:

4. "Inside Apple: How America's Most Admired - and Secretive - Company
    Really Works" by Adam Lashinsky

Written by a Fortune magazine editor, this book aims to lift the lid
on the inner workings of Apple.  It collects and expands on several
articles written by Lashinsky for the magazine over the years.  The
author argues that Apple ignores a lot of the conventional wisdom
about running large corporations.  It prefers to be closed and
secretive rather than open and transparent.  It prefers tight focus
(being vertical) over diversification (being horizontal), and
micromanagement over empowerment of workers. And despite its size,
in many ways the company is still run as if it was a lean startup.

Throughout the book, the author makes comparisons with how other tech
companies make decisions.  For example, Google once reportedly set up
experiments to test which 41 shades of blue should be used:
Apple famously frowns on such "decisions by committee".  Instead, an
Apple employee might ask Steve (Jobs) or Jony (Ive, head of design).

A lot of the information presented in not new, such as the obsession
with simplicity, attention to detail, and efficient supply chain.  But
some aspects are not as widely known.  For example, the periodic Top 100
get-togethers, where the most important employees of the company meet
off-site to discuss products in the pipeline.  The book also describes
the "Apple University", which comprises courseware prepared by leading
business educators, exclusively for internal use, with the aim of
teaching the "Apple way" of developing and marketing technology products.
This is one mechanism the company has developed to cope with the loss of
key staff, including its founder and iconic CEO, Steve Jobs.

A lot of the information in the book was gathered from interviews with
former employees (many of them unnamed), business partners, and other
Apple-watchers.  The lack of interviews with current Apple executives
makes one wonder about the accuracy of some of the more speculative
conclusions.  But, overall, an interesting look at what makes Apple
tick, and what its future may hold without Jobs at the helm.

5. "Generazione mille euro" ("1000 Euro Generation")
   by Antonio Incorvaia and Alessandro Rimassa

This is a short novel about a group of 20-ish and 30-ish singles living
and working in Milan.  Claudio, the main character, is an intern at a
high-pressure, hyper-competitive marketing firm.  At the start of the
novel, he's given the opportunity to go to Barcelona to present his
work on an important campaign.  The presentation is well received, and
his boss is happy, but not happy enough to give him a raise or a better
contract.  Claudio is dissatisfied with the cold/hot/cold relationship
with his girlfriend, Eleonora.  He shares a flat with a couple of guys
and a girl.  Matteo lectures part-time at a university, but his real
job seems to be working out obsessively at the gym.  He sponges off
his wealthy parents.  Alessio has a steady job at the post office, but
yearns to be a journalist.  Rossella is a part-time promotional model
who babysits to make ends meet.

The 1000 euro of the title refers to the average net monthly salary
that many young Italians have to live on.  It's barely enough top cover
rent and other basics - no wonder many of their peers prefer living at
home and commute long distances to work.  But it's not just the meagre
pay that causes financial insecurity: these "" are hired
under recently-introduced labour laws which permit employers to hire
workers for long probation periods with little or no pay, and relaxed
termination clauses.

Late in the novel Claudio has an interesting encounter with a homeless
woman, Anna.  She went to live the streets after her husband died and
she could no longer afford the mortgage.  Claudio feels compassionate
and offers her money, but she tells him to keep it, because he needs
it more than she does. This episode makes Claudio see his situation in
a new light.

I found the novel frustratingly short.  More fleshing out of characters
and situations could have made more impact.  My hopes rose when Claudio
briefly talked about the writing of George Orwell and Ray Bradbury in
the context of censorship.  I also had hopes that the meeting between
Claudio met Anna would develop into something more.  The increasing
influence of the English language in everyday Italian life was
interesting, as was the emerging politicisation of the plight of the
"stagisti".  But, ultimately, this novel doesn't quite match Douglas
Coupland in defining a statement for a generation (for example, in
Generation X).

The novel was recently made into a film, but from the description, it
appears some of characters have been combined and the plot has been
changed considerably.