Books Everyone Starts But Don’t Finish (And Is That Bad?)

This topic has been getting a lot of banter lately. I like the Guardian’s perspective on the topic.

Picking up a book is gratifying: look at me, not reading dumb listicles on the internet! Finishing a book, however, is a challenge. Which of this summer’s top-selling books have the highest reader attrition? Dr. Jordan Ellenberg has a semi-scientific way to find out, using buyer-generated info from Amazon to identify this year’s most unread book.

It’s a charmingly simple (if not entirely rigorous) method: Dr. Ellenberg cruises the “Popular Highlights” listings for each title, which shows the five passages most frequently highlighted by Kindle readers. If most folks make it to the very last page, those passages should come from the front, the back, and everywhere in between. If everyone drops off in Chapter 3, the most popular passages will be focused in the first few pages.

Should you finish every book you start?

…But this funny business of the Hawking Index, a lighthearted attempt to work out how far people persist in reading books, as indicated by the passages they highlight on their Kindles, has got me thinking. And it’s made me realise that my view has changed. I used to believe that if you really weren’t enjoying a book, you should toss it to one side and move on to something you might find more rewarding; essentially, it was born of an insurmountable fear of the sheer number of books I wouldn’t get round to reading before I died.

But things have changed. Clearly, I’ve got older and realised that I was a fool to see world literature as a mountain I had to scale, but more to the point, I’ve seen the threat that endless distractions and a wussy, don’t-like-it, bring-me-another attitude poses to our reading culture. I know I risk sounding po-faced, but the best books are a medium of thick description, painstakingly built word by word to produce strange and unexpected effects in the brain and heart; they deserve more than being treated like a passing bit of entertainment that hasn’t quite lived up to the reader’s exacting standards.

Facts Are Not Enough

On a recent flight, I was reading the Heath brothers excellent Made To Stick. Though the scenario in the book has to do with journalism, the lesson struck a chord with me in my own line of work (Enterprise Architecture).

The journalism professor tells the students that they must write the lead for a newspaper story. He goes on to layout all of the facts:

Kenneth L. Peters, the principal of Beverly Hills High School, announced today that the entire high school faculty will travel to Sacramento next Thursday for a colloquium on new teaching methods. Among the speakers will be anthropologist Margaret Mead, college president Dr. Robert Maynard Hutchins, and California governor Edmund ‘Pat’ Brown.

The students then go on to arrange and rearrange the given facts into a single sentence that would serve as the lead for the story. Then the professor opened their eyes by pointing out the real lead of the story — one that the students had missed by merely dealing with the facts. The real lead was “There will be no school next Thursday”.

Wham! By merely reporting the ‘facts’ the students missed the real point of what was going to happen. This made me think about how this can happen in my own field. Many a design review meeting is spent documenting and sorting through all of the technical minutiae but it is the architect’s job to understand the implications and possible risks/impacts of each of the details and decisions made. While certainly a big component, all of the technical details must be placed into the context of the Enterprise to tell the whole story and to truly understand the ‘point’.

I am finding that there is quite a lot in this book that can be applied to Enterprise Architecture (and really any field where you need to get the attention of an audience and keep them engaged in your message — particularly when it is something they consider to be dry and uninteresting).

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Book: Shaping Things

Shaping Things by Bruce Sterling bills itself as a book about created objects and therefore a book ‘about everything’. My experience with it was that it is a rambling, poorly written treatise that never really comes to any point whatsoever.

Many people who have read this book (or perhaps only heard of it) seem to latch on to the ‘spime’ meme in the book. I didn’t find the idea of spimes that compelling. They are basically like RFID tags on steroids — they ‘know’ what they are, where they’ve been and what they associate with. Sounds like the means to create a huge amount of metadata that doesn’t really matter to anyone in most cases. I think the idea owes a lot to the decade old idea of your refrigerator or toaster being on the Internet (remember how that was going to improve things?)

Sterling goes on and on about how this book is going to help designers. I just don’t see it. It seems to just ramble on and verges on incoherent. One example is Sterling and his wine bottle (a reoccurring theme in the book). Somehow, the fact that a wine bottle has a bar code and a URL printed on it causes Sterling to wax rhapsodic about how the bottle is now an ‘intelligent device’ and ‘interactive’. Right. Precisely what interactions does a bottle of wine initiate? To truly be an active participant in an interaction, it must be capable of action itself.

There are much better books that cover the intended material in a much better fashion. Check out Ambient Findability and Digital Ground for two excellent examples.

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Book: Ambient Findability

I find many multidisciplinary books to be especially fascinating, and Ambient Findability by Peter Morville was no exception. Morville posits that in the age of the search engine, one of the first considerations for data or a service is how easily it can be found and not necessarily how easy it is to use (though the usability bit certainly comes into play after it has been found).

…design of a useful information system requires a deep understanding of users and their social context. We cannot assume people will want our information, even if we know they need our information. Behind most failed web sites, intranets, and interactive products lie misguided models of users and their infomration-seeking behavior. Users are complex. Users are social. And so is information.

Of course, there is a great deal of information out there to be found and not all of it is terribly relevant. It should also be obvious that the sheer amount of data ‘out there’ is growing. In particular, the amount of telemetry information from GPS, RFID tags and sensors of all sorts is adding more unstructured or semi-structured data to the mix. Morville covers this ground deftly while touching on a very approachable discussion of the nature of information, how wayfinding in the physical world might provide clues to wayfinding in the data-space, and push versus pull models of data acquisition and filtering.

Chapter 6 introduces semantic web technology and approaches and its goals in dealing with data and metadata in a structured, machinable way. These approaches are contrasted with the folksonomy approach taken by the roll-your-own-tags way of doing things such as .

It would seem that unless you take charge of your own findability, someone else will do it for you and not necessarily to your benefit. Typo-squatters were the unfortunate pioneers of this space. More subtle variations on this are competitors who create site to disparage your product and play up their own under the guise of some ‘neutral’ third party opinion.

What you don’t find can be just as bad. I identified a malady back in the early 90s in the context of the then emergent graphic user interfaces that mirrors the contemporary ‘Google mindset’. At the time, everyone was extolling the virtues of What-You-See-Is-What-You-Get. The problem that I saw was that the vast majority of people will assume that What-You-See-Is-All-You-Get and not venture beyond the eye candy that is most immediately in front of their noses to discover richer functionality and interactions. There are folks who truly believe that ‘if it is not in Google, then it doesn’t exist’ and that what they find in Google is the truth. This can be extremely dangerous, as it has been demonstrated over and over how easy it is to manipulate search results (not only on Google but Digg, Technorati and others).

Another issue with current search technology is that it simply isn’t fuzzy enough. For example, when I travel, I seek out CD shops to browse the racks and find new music. Part of finding new music is also simply having an ear out for what is playing in the shop itself. I have found quite a bit of new music that I would never have known to search for but was introduced to by a chance listen or stumbling across it in a section of the shop that I was looking for an unrelated item in. I hold out a great deal of hope that application of semantic web technologies might help to search for and discover items in a manner similar to these physical, chance finds.

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Book: The World Is Flat

I just finished The World is Flat by Thomas Friedman and have to say its a bit of a mixed bag. First, I found the book to be over-long, especially since the entire premise of the book in presented in the rather verbose introduction and then slowly tortured for the next four hundred pages or so.

Granted, some of what follows serves to expound on some of his introductory points but frequently it ranges into breathless, almost infomercial prose about certain big corporations that the author loves to name drop again and again and again.

In later chapters he starts ranging more into politics and this is were he starts to get both annoying and contradictory.

First he posits that no two countries participating in a global supply chain would dare go to war with each other. Really. I guess he missed the part where the US attacked Iraq, nominally over oil supplies (that the US wants to control). It seems the current (US) thinking is to go to war in order to control a global supply chain and not to protect it.

Next he spends an inordinate amount of time slagging off Islamic countries and enumerating their perceived shortcomings with various economic figures and assertions. Thomas, I’d be interested to hear those same numbers for Israel, as well. How many new patents are created there per year? What is their GDP growth? How does it compare to other countries in the region? With Europe? If the constant loans from the US are any indication, probably not well. My point is that he needs to be careful about where he shines his spotlight and to do it evenly and without bias.

It is also curious in this discussion that there is no mention of Turkey and the reforms that Attaturk put into place after the second world war. Granted, Turkey is not exactly a world economic powerhouse, but they have gone a long way toward separating religion from the government and economy. Also, I note that toward the end of the book he’s back to swooning over the high tech situation in Malaysia (an Islamic country), where is laptop coincidently was built.

And speaking of the laptop, did we really need the tedious two page recounting of where every part in his laptop might have come from? I could have done without it.

Finally, the assertion that anyone who is concerned about the side effects of globalization (pollution, natural resource over-consumption, etc) is a ‘socialist’, ‘communist’ or ‘Trotskyist’ is gratuitous and something that I would expect more from Fox News than an even handed discussion regarding globalization.

Overall, I found this book overly long and ponderously presented. It would have made a very nice short essay (preferably without the race-baiting and political posturing).

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Innovation Happens Elsewhere

There is now an online version of the book Innovation Happens Elsewhere, which discusses using open source software as a business strategy. Even if you are developing your own ‘proprietary’ software, leveraging the sheer amount (and in most cases, quality) of open source software can provide for speedier startup and time to market.

If you are interested, the dead tree version was published in April 2005 and is available from amazon.

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Book: Ambient Findability

Ambient Findability by Peter Morville is an interesting sounding new book dealing with filtering and ultimately finding the data that you need in the current environment of ‘information overload’. Thus far, the book has received great reviews. Here is a snippit of book description from Amazon:

Morville discusses the Internet, GIS, and other network technologies that are coming together to make unlimited findability possible. He explores how the melding of these innovations impacts society, since Web access is now a standard requirement for successful people and businesses. But before he does that, Morville looks back at the history of wayfinding and human evolution, suggesting that our fear of being lost has driven us to create maps, charts, and now, the mobile Internet.

The book’s central thesis is that information literacy, information architecture, and usability are all critical components of this new world order. Hand in hand with that is the contention that only by planning and designing the best possible software, devices, and Internet, will we be able to maintain this connectivity in the future. Morville’s book is highlighted with full color illustrations and rich examples that bring his prose to life.

This definately a topic of interest to me and I have added this book to my to-be-read queue and Amazon wishlist.

LibraryThing Import

I have commented previously about LibraryThing and mentioned how a nice import utility for data from DeliciousLibrary or other tools would be a great improvement. The developer has contacted me to let me know that just such an import utility exists under the Extras menu item in LibraryThing.

I tried it out over the weekend with my exported data from DeliciousLibrary and it works as advertised. In fact, faster than advertised; it told me that my queue of 177 ISBNs would take several hours to import. They completed importing within 10 minutes.

A great service just keeps getting better! I have added a link to my LibraryThing catalog in the right hand section of this blog, if you are at all curious.

Freaking the Tipping Point

I recently finished reading Blink, The Tipping Point and Freakonomics. I would highly recommend any/all of these books. One curious tension that comes from having read these recently is that the ‘Broken Window’ policing strategy that is extolled in The Tipping Point is rigorously discounted as having no effect on crime in Freakonomics. Curious. How did Malcolm Gladwell get this so wrong?

The other theme that hit me was how several of the topics covered in Blink and The Tipping Point start to sound like what gets discounted (and in some cases disproven) as ‘conventional wisdom’ in by Levitt in Freakonomics. Makes me curious that if Levitt were to write a book examining each of the assertions in Gladwell’s works, how many of them would stand up to the economists vetting? No matter the outcome, the result would be an interesting read.

One topic that I would love to see Levitt cover is this: does the increased level of violence in movies and video games desensitise people to violence or does it desensitise people to violence in movies and video games?

Yet Another Cool Web App

LibraryThing is sort of like flickr for books. You can enter in titles and it will search the Library of Congress and Amazon for matching information to allow you to build you library without having to manually enter in all of the fiddly little details.

What would be really impressive is if something which allows you to easily scan bar codes for books (like Delicious Library) would also allow you to export to LibraryThing, the upfront input ramp-up for LibraryThing would be greatly eased.

New Book on Founding of Google

A new book by John Battelle titled The Search: How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture should provide an interesting read and some insight into this ever growing company. The review on sounds promising so I’ll probably add it to my wishlist.

The last book like this I read was supposed to have been on the startup of Netscape, called Competing on Internet Time. However, I found this book to be a real dissapointment as the dubious premise the author took was that everything that Netscape did was in reaction to Microsoft. I can’t count the number of times the author kept using the tired phrase ‘…locked in a life and death struggle with Microsoft’. The fact is, at the time Microsoft had no clue about the Internet and where happily flogging away on the virtues of video on demand over cable (remember the blinding success that turned out to be).

Startup: A Silicon Valley Adventure was a fascinating look at how real innovation (in this case in the early days of pen based computing) can be choked to death by ‘partnering’ with Microsoft.

I still think that my favorite book on technology companies was Tracy Kidder’s The Soul of a New Machine. This is a book that I picked up an read many years ago and continue to re-read it now and again.

Book: A Short History of Nearly Everything

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

This book was a suggested read by the ‘book club’ at work. Frankly, I don’t get what was supposed to be so great about this book (or maybe I do). First off, I found the writing style chatty and sophomoric (and in some cases annoyingly so). The way that much of the material is dealt with many times focuses more on the controversy around a given topic or some gee-whiz statistics than on actual substance and understanding.

While I was tempted to give up on the book about 100 pages into, I told my wife that I was going to force myself to finish it, in an ultimately vain effort to find out why it was so highly recommended. The only conclusion that I could come to is that the readers were really only interested in the sound-byte qualities of the book — something that they could chirp in on during a lunch conversation or over drinks.

In comparison, I found any number of books by Simon Winchester, such as Krakatoa, The Map That Changed the World, and The Professor and the Madman to be much more compelling and ultimately satisfying.

Book: The Tipping Point

The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell

Ok, everybody has already heard of/read this book (what can I say, Im slow and don’t have many opportunities to read). I thought that there were a great many interesting ideas about how things become adopted/popular. I particularly enjoyed the writing style which I found to be engaging without being chatty.

I also enjoyed the book because it is the sort of thing that helps me in my job, which is largely about trying to make complex things understandable and influencing people to take action on them based on the benefits.

Book: The Hero With A Thousand Faces

Hero With A Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell

I have had this book for a while now and just finished it in while on vacation in Alaska. In fact, I bought this book back when the original Power of Myth PBS series aired some time ago.

I have always had an interest in mythology, religion, cognitive psychology and linguistics and this definitely plays into the first two and to a lesser extent the third. It also builds on my interest in the works of Carl Jung as well.

It was interesting to finish the book in Alaska, a place where the indigenous practices have (seemingly) not been surpressed as they have been in other places. The visit to the Alaskan Heritage site was rewarding to talk to some of the people who are from the various tribes and collectives of Alaska.

In a subsequent conversation, I was curious as to where young kids these days get their mythology and how do they learn the lessons that a cultures mythology attempts to internalize? Video games? Television? Internet? Sadly, interaction with parents and the community seems to be a scarce commodity.

Book: Buying a Fishing Rod for My Grandfather

Buying a Fishing Rod for My Grandfather by Gao Xing Jian

I bought this book after it was rather deliriously reviewed on NPR.

While there are a few interesting moments in the book on the whole, I was left wondering what all of the breathless praise in the review was about. The last two short stories in the book where particularly unsatisfying. The short that shares the same name as the book moves along nicely then absolutely disintegrates into a stream of consciousness load of blather. It’s almost as if the author couldn’t figure out an ending so he pulled the literary equivalent of the last 10 minutes of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey movie.

The final short in the book reads like a collection of snippets for ideas for scenes in a book (or even a film for that matter). They don’t come close to hanging together and have the jarring effect of poorly done free jazz (to my eyes anyway).

I’d give this book about 2 out of 5. Not a total clanger, but definitely not one that I would read again.