Friday, January 31, 2014

The books of January

The unusually cold Bay Area weather colluded with the short January days to give me a lot of time to read; here's the result. Books listed in order of acquisition; reading was interleaved and out of order, as usual.

1. Henry Petroski: To forgive design. (I'm a fan of Petroski's work, and have all his books.) In this book Petroski extends the study of engineering failure to include systemic components and human decision-making, getting into Donald Norman territory. For anyone interested in technology, engineering, and understanding the way things work and fail, this is a must-read.

2. Matthew Jackson: Social and economic networks. This is technically a work book, but I already know its contents, so I read it for pleasure. It's reasonable as a set of class notes for Jackson's course and MOOC, fairly technical for the general educated public.

3. Charles Gasparino: The sellout. Reads like a novel about the crash of 2008. Gasparino,  a journalist, writes better than former trader Michael Lewis, with better information and broader vision (because Lewis was in "the trenches" where vision is necessarily limited), and without a chip on his shoulder against the financial system. Read in two sittings in two consecutive evenings. Take that, tell-lies-vision.

4. Duff McDonald: The firm: the story of McKinsey. I won't comment on this book, other than to say I highlighted a large number of passages.

5. Richard Hammond: Or is that just me? (Library book; doing my part to slow down economic growth.) The self-described short bloke from Top Gear writes about the making of some of his shows and some personal stories. It's not bad per se, but it's not funny or insightful, like the books by the louder, bigger Top Gear co-host Jeremy Clarkson. I started skimming, then skipping ahead, and eventually gave up in the middle. Sorry, Hamster.

6. Charles Gasparino: Circle of friends. (Library book.) Again reads like a novel, and I read it in one sitting on the weekend. If you like financial and governmental shenanigans, read it: it describes the witch hunt criminal investigation of insider trading in the late 2000s. As one of those involved points out, it's funny how insider trading is touted as a heinous crime, and people serve time for it, but it doesn't make people poor, like bubbles, which have produced zero arrests.

7. Charles Gasparino: Blood on the street. (Library book.) Unsurprisingly, it reads like a novel and I read it in one sitting on the weekend. The same weekend. (Bad weather weekend.) If you like financial and governmental shenanigans, read it: it's the story of the late-90s stock boom and bust, with an emphasis on the conflicts of interest between analysts and investment bankers in the same firms, while the various regulators looked away, then political opportunism in finding a few scapegoats. (This is my interpretation of the book, not how it's presented.)

8. Peter Mayle: Acquired tastes. Got it after reading this post at A Suitable Wardrobe. A fun description of some luxuries by a member of the upper middle class — which looks sober and thrifty compared to the lifestyles of the rich and shameless of the third Millenium. Also a infomercial in text for Provence (not that it needs one). Two examples. Laugh-out-loud, especially for anyone who has spent time in France outside Paris, ski resorts, and beaches.

During January indoor rowing, elliptical walking, commuting, shopping, cleaning and other dead times, I also heard a few audiobooks (fewer than usual, but I listen to a few interesting podcasts and they compete for the same aural time):

9. Clayton Christensen: How will you measure your life? Reflections on what is important in life; a little more philosophical than one would expect from a Hahvahd B.S. professor. Made me think hard about some of my life choices, which is all that can be asked of a book like this.

10. Oscar Wilde: The importance of being earnest (performance). Obviously a reread, and I've also watched a few live performances and movies based on it before. Wilde's writing is magnificent and the actors (not readers) do a great job. The play is available free on the interwebs.

11. David Weinberger: Too big to know. Only heard part of it, still about two-thirds to go, but it's not grabbing my attention, to say the least. Perhaps a harsh assessment, since I have a professional interest in the issues of the book. But in general I tend to like popular books on my area of technical expertise, so the problem is mostly with the book, not any professional elitism on my part.

As is my habit, I reread bits and pieces (sometimes large fractions of the book) of P.G. Wodehouse, Evelyn Waugh, Mark Twain, H.L. Mencken, Ian Fleming [James Bond], and Agatha Christie [Poirot] here and there. Even some Umberto Eco essays! I haven't read any new fiction, since I find most of what's on offer formulaic and preachy, often poorly written and scarcely researched as well.

(Someone pointed out that in my "Books of 2013" post I missed quite a few, like the haul from the SFPL shown in this photo or this one. That's because I didn't log them; the system isn't perfect.)


In the reading queue for February (not counting work-related materials, which take about half of my "leisure" reading time), meaning books I already acquired but had no time to read in January:

a. Niall Ferguson: High financier: the lives and time of Siegmund Warburg. (SFPL book.) Got the library copy to reread - I had read a library copy in 2010. (Slowing down economic growth even then.) Returning books to the library recently, I saw it and checked it out on impulse. That a person would choose to reread the biography of a mid-century banker on impulse is review enough for the book (or the person!), but to be fair to Ferguson: unlike most narrative writers now, who pepper their prose with irrelevant distracting details, NF picks the interesting parts of the story and paints a picture of a sober, vaguely obsessive, cunning banker who lived an interesting life.

b. Burkholder, Grout, and Palisca: A history of Western music, 8th edition. (SFPL book.) I own the portuguese translation of the third edition and I'm considering buying the upcoming tenth edition. Since it's a textbook and therefore costs its weight in DeBeers diamonds, I decided to check this intermediate edition to get an idea of the changes. (Textbook publishers use unnecessary proliferation of editions to undermine the used book market, and the parts of Western music that I care the most about happened too long ago for their history to have changed much from edition to edition.)

c. Lawrence Freedman Strategy: a history. Books that take a very broad view of strategy tend to be either good (rarely great) or very bad. I saw his talk at Google and since the book was only $10 on Kindle I bought it on impulse. (Publishers: cheap books mean a lot more impulse sales; do your math.) The sample was not too bad, so it might not be one of those very bad books.

d & e. Peter Mayle: A year in Provence and Toujours Provence. (Two eBooks, plus an abridged audiobook version of the two.) Given how funny Acquired Tastes was, I decided to try a couple more; added the audiobook so I can enjoy it on assorted torture repetitive exercise machines.

f. Peter Mayle: French lessons: adventures with knife, fork, and corkscrew. (Audiobook; considering the companion Kindle book to try Amazon whispersync.) Another Mayle book for exercise occasions. I expect that these books will put some stress on the Paleo, but then again – to paraphrase my PhD advisor, a very wise man – life is too short to eat bad food.

g. Lucius Beebe: The provocative pen of Lucius Beebe, Esq. (SFPL book.) Beebe is a chronicler of San Francisco in the old days, and I like the history of this city. People who protest ongoing changes in the city seem to not understand its history. San Francisco has changed its character more often than any city I've ever known, and that's one of the exciting things about it.

h. Herb Caen: Only in San Francisco. (Berkeley Public Library book.) Another chronicler of San Francisco's past. I like the city, I really do. I just don't want to live in it; the suburbs are much nicer than the city, now. Caen calls San Francisco Baghdad-by-the-bay in an eponymous book; Beebe's description, older, is more like Paris in the West Coast, with Boston being London on the East Coast.

i. Burt Folsom: The myth of the robber barons. On the recommendation of Free The Animal, I watched the author's video, so I'll read the book to balance out all the Aaron Sorkin series (The West Wing, The Newsroom) and movies I have watched.

j. Steven Kotler and Peter Diamandis: Abundance. (Audiobook.) Strangely enough, I find listening to popular books about my areas of expertise a good way to relax after work (on top of a elliptical machine, an indoor rower, or a treadmill – that's an essential part; never during resistance training, all 11 minutes per week of it).

k. Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee: The second machine age. Ok, this one is close to a work book, but it isn't technical (at least from the quick browse), so I'll count it as leisure reading. (My work books have phrases like "compact space," "support vector machine," and "Markov perfect equilibrium." Also, they cost their weight in Beluga caviar.)

(That's eleven books – plus one abridged audiobook and an art book, Architecture Now 9, which should arrive tomorrow (it did) – in the queue and February hasn't even started yet. I already pre-ordered a couple of books coming out in March. It never ends.)


The secret to reading all these books is very little television. (Also, being a vaguely misanthropic bachelor with no children.) For example, arriving home at 6PM I brew a pot of tea, sit in a comfortable chair, and read until dinner at the civilized European hour of 10PM; many people I know vegetate in front of the tell-lies-vision for the same period. (Or have families.) Reading four hours a day, eight or more per day on weekends, even if half of it is work-related, means two or three books per week.

Here are a few recommendations for improving the reading experience:

A comfortable chair is of paramount importance. Not an ergonomic office chair; a club chair. A tall overstuffed leather chair invites the relaxed feeling necessary to enjoy a book; ergonomic office chairs demand efficiency, measurable return on time invested, results Now! An ottoman is a better foot rest than a La-z-boy-type contraption designed for bovine ingestion of tell-lies-vision.  Fireplace and labrador retriever are optional.

If I'm reading on an electronic device, an increasingly common situation, I put it in airplane mode, blocking out the World Wide Wasteland. For the same reason I never read with the television on, even if muted.

Soft warm light is very important, especially at night; there's the matter of intensity (too bright you'll feel like you're being interrogated, too dim and your eyes will soon be tired) and of warmth, or hue. Most fluorescent lights (and cheap LED lights) have too much blue and violet in them; get a "warmer" lightbulb, one with more yellow and red, especially if you read a lot at night. Or bounce a "cold" light off a warm-colored reflector.

I like to have soft background music, usually something from between mid-16th and early 18th centuries; the mathematical precision of Buxtehude or his pupils J.S. Bach and Handel can serve as a mental rest area when I pause to parse a thought. Friends tell me they use jazz, but I find it distracting.

Reading: it's a cheap hobby, an invaluable habit.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Food rules, via experience marketing

Using experience marketing to improve one's lifestyle; if there was ever a case of déformation professionnelle…

A while ago I saw this quote in The London Lounge:
Fitzroy Maclean, the real-life James Bond who died a few years ago, always carried with him on his travels a tube of anchovy paste. He explained that in his experience one could always locate some alcohol and a crust of bread: his tube made it a party. This sort of discernment has much to do with small luxuries: too luxurious and they cease to be fun, too small and they cease to be rare.
I thought it very insightful, added some marketing knowledge and a dash of Paleo to it, and came to the conclusion that life is much better if I stick to the following rules:

1. Life is too short to eat bad food. Corollary: better to go hungry than eat bad food, considering that I have subcutaneous energy reserves. When we consider the needs serviced by food, in particular hedonic needs, the satisfaction created by bad food, which at best satisfies a functional need for calories, is necessarily inferior to that of an experience good; why waste a perfectly good opportunity of high value need satisfaction with mediocre product? What are we, an airline?

2. Small luxuries, infrequently consumed. Three reasons for this: (a) experiences saturate fast in an individual consumption occasion, i.e. the pleasure from eating 25g of Brie is much higher than 1/20 the pleasure from eating 500g of Brie in a single seating [yes, it's possible, with enough baguette]; (b) longer periods between consumption occasions lead to better experience, first by decreasing any habituation that might lower the situational consumption value, second by increasing the anticipatory value of the experience; (c) infrequent consumption of unhealthy items (such as crème brulée) doesn't have the long-term health damaging effects of frequent consumption (like insulin resistance). One of the great advantages of intermittent fasting (eating only when hungry, which sometimes means less than once a day) is that each meal is a noteworthy experience: fasting takes you off the hedonic treadmill. Oh, yes, there are also some health advantages, but who cares about that?

3. Creative use of available resources yields surprising value. When we productize an experience, such as with packaged food, a lot of the degrees of freedom for consumer adaptation of the experience are lost. But when we deconstruct the productized experience, as in the quote above, the result is that surprisingly good value can be achieved with minor adjustments. "Anchovy paste, therefore party" is not something that would have come to mind easily, but it's remarkable what a few drops of white truffle-infused olive oil can do to boring fish or a thin slice of foie gras (Nein! Verboten in Kalifornien!) to a green salad.

And two general rules that have to do with how manufacturing and marketing work. (Shush, don't tell anyone.)

4. Ignore most talk about nutrition. Most people are "educated" by marketing and PR, usually without realizing it, and the purpose of marketing is to deliver value and capture part of the surplus created, not to educate people about scientific results. Not that marketing communications are outright lies, but there are entire floors of copywriters in advertising agencies and buildings full of PR people whose job is to shape the narrative. (Doesn't that sound much better than "obfuscate, defuse, and deflect?") Read Salt, sugar, and fat; great marketing book, but will raise some heckles about manufactured food. (I'm assigning a few excerpts in my value proposition design modules.)

5. Cook your own food. Corollary: learn about food and cooking, from sources like On food and cooking: the science and lore of the kitchen, The professional chef, Larousse gastronomique, and Alton Brown. (Famous chef cookbooks are worthless, as they are mostly productization of the chef's brand equity. Neat marketing, worthless pedagogy. Julia Child excepted, because in her case the fame followed the cookbook.) With a little practice and learning, cooking becomes a multi-faceted experience (sense, think, and act, sometimes even feel – all in one activity), plus it can become a free part of one's identity, replacing those expensive Pradarmani clothes [so 1990s].

Former students will recognize much of the above, except in the opposite direction of what we discussed in class. Experience marketing is the foundation for this post, but here I'm optimizing for the point of view of the consumer while in class we optimized for the point of view of the seller.

Bon appétit

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

MOOC-rize this!

Participant-centered learning is not scalable, so it's MOOC-resistant.

A couple of colleagues (in different fields) have shared MOOC-related worries with me. The logic goes, our research jobs are funded to a large extent by teaching, and if the need for teachers disappears, many schools will stop hiring expensive research faculty. Cathy "Mathbabe" O'Neil suspects MOOCs will have tragic consequences for mathematics research.

I'm not convinced.

As I see it, there are three main MOOC threats to traditional higher education: cost-effectiveness, brand equity of the schools offering the MOOCs, and quality of content. There's also one main visible weakness, certification.

Cost-effectiveness. The cost-effectiveness of MOOCs is the main argument I hear for "the end of universities as we know them," to which I say: if you can replace class X with videos of lectures and computer-graded problems sets, good riddance to class X.

Distance learning is an old proposition, it started with something called "a book." MOOCs add better media, the possibility of computer graded problem sets (for some fields, and requiring a significant investment in problem set design), and tutoring or discussion affordances.

But here's the crux: the scalable parts of MOOCs are the easy part of education. The hard part is motivating students, interacting with them and being responsive to their questions, taking the time to understand the reason for their incomprehension, and reacting in real time to information they bring into the class or developments in the field.

So, while MOOCs will work really well for highly motivated, studious students (nerds like me), the average student will need more personalized attention than is cost-effective to offer in large scale.

Repeat after me: Personalized attention doesn't scale.

True, many classes in many institutions of higher learning don't deliver anything more than the scalable parts of the MOOCs; no personalized attention or significant interaction with the students at all. Those classes are ripe for replacement by MOOCs, and that's good.

This is what gets me steamed about Mathbabe's post: if the professors don't add value to a student reading the textbook and solving the problem sets (that in many cases are straight off teachers' manuals from the textbook publisher and graded by teaching assistants), then what is the purpose of hiring someone with a deep understanding of the field a/k/a a research faculty member?

The answer to that lies in the value of an instructor with a deep understanding of the field to manage participant-centered learning (now called "flipped classroom" but in fact the only way anyone ever really learned any technical material was by practicing it).

Brand equity. Who wouldn't rather say "I took the Caltech Machine Learning course" rather than "I took the Cal State-Moraga Machine Learning course"? This is indeed a problem, but to a large extent it's a matter of brand credibility footprint, not a technological issue.

With prestigious schools creating extension campuses and joint ventures with other universities, MOOCs are only a small part of the problem. And let's remember that brand extensions are not one-way propositions; MOOC-rizing courses may dilute a school's brand equity. (So may having extension campuses, of course. Armani Exchange doesn't help the brand equity of Armani.)

Talking to some Hahvahd B.S. colleagues, I got the distinct impression that they believe the student physical presence in their Cambridge (Allston, really) campus is an essential part of the brand identity, one that they are not willing to compromise on. I'd venture that at Hahvahd B.S.  they know a thing or two about the network and identity dimensions of brand equity.

So, I agree that the brand equity is an issue, but more because of extension campuses and joint ventures than MOOCs, since the brand credibility footprint is much more likely to encompass the former than the latter. (Says the visiting professor at TheLisbonMBA, a joint venture of UCP, UNL, and MIT.)

Quality. Obviously there's a difference between the quality of the classes taught at Caltech and at [the fictional] Cal State-Moraga; and that is part of the brand equity of Caltech. But the real question is whether the students of CS-Moraga are going to benefit from a class that was designed for Caltech students more than from one that was designed specifically for them.

Note that this immediately raises the question of whether CS-Moraga classes are customized to their student population (that is now, before being MOOC-rized). And that's again the issue of what faculty are doing at CS-Moraga: if they rely on the textbook and the teachers' materials provided by the textbook publisher in order to save themselves the trouble of actually preparing a class, then as I said above, good riddance.

On the other hand, in participant-centered learning the instruction follows from the participants' needs and skills, moving at their pace, therefore for good quality the instructor must have a broad training in the general field and a deep understanding of the materials of the class.

It's incumbent upon the faculty to make itself more valuable than a cost-effective MOOC, or a textbook for that matter. Otherwise, it's their own fault if they're MOOC-rized

Certification. Certification of knowledge is the weak point of MOOCs as they currently exist, but it's important to note two issues with this.

First, certification cannot be the only function of universities or research faculty, as certification alone doesn't require the large infrastructure and cost of a university or the need for broad research programs.

Second, and much more critical, if the MOOC certification weakness is part of the advantage of a traditional university, that weakness ends if universities stop taking their certification responsibilities seriously. When some schools graduate computer engineers who never wrote a program that passed a compiler's syntax check, let alone run, let alone run correctly or efficiently — to choose an example I heard from someone I trust — then the credibility of universities as certification mechanisms comes into question, and their advantage vis-a-vis MOOCs in this regard evaporates.

(Yes, there's a third possible issue, that of MOOCs adding some sort of credible certification. I believe that that's a long way off, given how it would require (a) an infrastructure to prevent fraud; (b) some sort of long-term evaluation, since not everything can be certified with a short test; and (c) legal protection in case of unacceptable demographic results in aggregate, which universities seem to have had grandfathered in, but other institutions have found themselves liable to.)

I for one welcome our new MOOC multimedia limited-interaction e-textbooks for the 21st Century. As a complement to real instruction: customized, personal, and responsive. And as a mechanism for making universities take certification seriously.