Tag Archives: books

How to argue with a cat

Anyone else read Scott Adams’ blog? The guy who does Dilbert? He seems to have gone off the rails a bit recently with all his Trump stuff but the idea behind some of it — the art of persuasion — is potentially interesting. I wanted to learn more.

Jay Heinrichs’ “How to argue with a cat” seemed like a good introduction, in that it didn’t look too sleazy or too serious. As an added bonus, it’s also very short.

It’s well written, humorous (“But most of us humans look ridiculous when we swivel our ears,” “Cats rarely change their expression. That’s one reason they look so dignified. It also helps them hide their ploys.”), entertaining and clearly organised, so I wish I could recommend it more. However, I’m not really sure how much new I learned by reading it. If you’re truly a beginner — maybe I knew more than I thought — it’s possibly worth a read otherwise you might want to consider something a little more advanced.

Creativity, inc

I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect when I started “Creativity, inc.” In the end, it’s a bunch of anecdotes strung together to explain certain business practices that Ed Catmull believes has made Pixar successful. Half biography, half management guide if you like.

While the stories are engaging, and he has a surprising degree of humility, it’s difficult to see how many of the ideas can be successfully translated to other industries. Which is not to say that he’s wrong just that I wouldn’t expect to take his advice and immediately apply it to your workplace.

For example, he spends time talking about how the Braintrust has helped identify or solve many problems. But how would that work for a software product? (Is software engineered or crafted as other creative endeavours are? That’s a longer discussion for another time but, in short, I think it qualifies as creative.) I can see how it might help a review of the UX or visuals but the most helpful people for a code review would likely already be on the project. You need so much domain specific knowledge that I have a hard time seeing how an independent third party could provide anything other than high-level or generic development advice.

The other thing that stood out is that much of the advice would only work for companies awash with cash. I absolutely see the value in, say, teaching a designer how to code or engineers how to draw (two examples from Pixar U) but calculating that value and showing an ROI? Even the “rich” companies I’ve worked for have generally shown a preference for “shareholder value” and profits than hard to justify benefits for employees. Maybe that is why Pixar is successful where so many others are not, but you’d need a lot of spare money to support these endeavours, and not every enterprise is in an industry where they could afford do so even if they were willing.

Ultimately I’m a sucker for anything Pixar, so I found it to be an enjoyable read, and it certainly gives food for thought. Maybe that’s all it’s supposed to do. But will I be directly applying many of these lessons to my day job? Sadly not.

Yeah Yeah Yeah

If you’re looking for a comprehensive guide to pop music, from the 1950s to around 2010, Bob Stanley’s “Yeah Yeah Yeah” is it. It’s roughly chronological and covers everything from the introduction of vinyl (the “official” start of pop music) to downloads (the end).

Every page leaves you with a list of songs you want to listen to. The volume is such that you’ll never get around to finding all of them but I did end up listening to a bunch of stuff that I wouldn’t ordinarily have thought to. Ironically, by being published in 2014 it misses the mainstreaming of the very streaming services that allowed me to do that!

No genre is left uncovered and it’s all nicely pieced together, connecting the people and the styles. It’s enthusiastically, if not well, written and very thorough. You probably already know if you’ll like it.

The Establishment

The Establishment” by Owen Jones is another Brexit-inspired read, though it was actually written before the referendum and some of it has dated remarkably quickly because of that.

It reads like a long Guardian article. Or, maybe, as a collection of Guardian columns strung together, in the sense that some turns of phrase seem to repeat often. If they’d not been in one book it might have been less noticeable? And the politics are similarly left-leaning.

Overall it’s an easy read if you agree with the thrust of the argument that the West is controlled by the wealthy. It’s supported by copious notes but many are from newspapers rather then original research so I’m not sure how convincing they are.

To me the weakest bit was the “conclusions” section where suggestions are made for fixing things, but that’s probably because I wasn’t convinced they were the right ones. Of course, like any armchair pundit, however, I don’t have any better ones…

Solo

I don’t normally read “franchise” books. I’ve avoided Star Wars, Star Trek and Doctor Who spin-offs but thought I’d try “Solo” featuring James Bond, mostly as as it was written by William Boyd who is one of my favourite authors.

It was a quick read, some nice twists. It has more gruesome violence than you get in the movies, which surprised me. Fleming purists may argue that it’s not the Bond of the books, but nothing offended me.

Overall not one of Boyd’s more memorable books but enjoyable.

The Trouble with eBooks

I want to like ebooks, I really do.

I like that the Kindle is smaller than a real paperback but can store dozens, hundreds even, of novels. I like that you can lose the hardware device and just download the books again. I like that I can read the same book on my iPhone as well as my iPad. It doesn’t even bother me that there’s no physical product. I’m not going to re-read most of my books yet they continue to take up the limited space in my London flat.

So why have I only ever bought a single ebook?

Here is the pricing for a book that I recently wanted to buy.

Paperback: 6.73.
Kindle: 6.99.

Here’s another.

Paperback: 5.59.
Kindle: 5.03.

I’m quoting prices on Amazon as it’s one of the bigger ebook suppliers. I’ve also used Apple’s iBooks, but downloads there are similarly (often higher) priced. But the gist is that ebooks are often more expensive than the equivalent paperback, and when they’re cheaper it’s not by much.

The publishers or Amazon might argue that the ebook is subject to VAT (sales tax) whereas paperbacks do not.

I would counter that with: I don’t care.

What I care about is “value for money.” All else being equal, I might consider an ebook to be worth more than a real book as it takes up less space and I can download it again if I lose my reader.

Unfortunately, all else is not equal. I can’t lend an ebook1. I can’t resell an ebook. I can’t donate a book I’ve read to the local library or to a charity shop. The fact that it’s worth pretty much nothing when I’ve finished it means that an ebook is worth considerably less to me than a real book.

Nevertheless, I think ebooks are almost certainly the future. Unlike audiobooks or TV versus radio, ebooks have exactly the same use-case as traditional books. The objections are almost entirely technical. The cost. The resolution or brightness of the screen. The battery life. These are all solvable. It’s the business model that needs work.

Steve Jobs famously said that people want to own their music and, to this date, Apple have only sold music; they’ve never rented it. On the other hand, you can rent movies and, if you live in the US, TV shows too. I think, broadly speaking, Jobs is correct2. You might listen to your favourite music dozens, even hundreds, of times. You’ll watch a movie or read a book, even a favourite one, only a few times by comparison.

So following that logic, I wonder why no-one has tried ebook rentals? In libraries we can already see that there’s a market for rented reading material. The same kind of DRM used with movies could be used for books, though we might need a little more than 24 hours to read a complete novel. I’d suggest around a couple of weeks or something more along the lines of a Netflix/LoveFilm model where you borrow n books at a time for as long as you subscribe.

Is there any reason why this won’t work?

  1. Lending Kindle books only works in the US. I like the idea of Lendle. iBooks doesn’t allow lending at all. []
  2. Spotify and Last.fm have the opposite problem to ebooks: they’re too cheap. Or at least too cheap to sustain the current system. Changing the system is a different, and entirely valid, conversation. []