Lies or Insights?

I’ve been reading close to one book a week for the past year, and have nearly achieved Buddha-hood.  I’ll be reviewing them all here eventually, now that I have a trusty C-Pen.

But today I am for the first time thinking of ditching a book on my self-assigned list.  I just started reading “Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience” by Yi-Fu Tuan.  He is apparently a brilliant thinker and is highly recommended.  And it started out well enough.  But by page 10, I ran into this insight:

“It is a common tendency to regard feeling and thought as opposed, the one registering subjective states, the other reporting on objective reality. In fact, they lie near the two ends of an experiential continuum, and both are ways of knowing.”

He’s correct that popular wisdom holds thought and feeling to be in opposition.  His response if very insightful.  It’s the “and both are ways of knowing” that I have a serious problem with.  The correct sentence would end “and both are ways of knowing or (deliberately) not knowing”.  Thus the whole ending could be left off entirely — leaving it there and one-sided as he does makes it seem as if all thought and feeling is a road to knowledge.  This is an error of the gravest magnitude.  Thought and feeling are far more often employed in concealing knowledge from oneself than in “knowing”.

Now, here is my problem.  Prior to this tainted insight, he eruditely proclaimed one or two uncommon insights per page — the rest of the book will no doubt be the same.  Normally this would be a bonanza, but now I can’t trust him.  It’s very likely that he will have some great insights, but if these are scattered among half-baked insights with dangerously jagged holes, I’ll have to be on guard to avoid getting seduced by something specious.  And so far, none of his insights have been fully baked.

Of course, every book of this sort is going to have things that you disagree strongly with, so disagreement alone shouldn’t be reason to jettison a book.  And I am not actually that worried that I would be duped by any half-baked ideas.  But it will take considerable effort to wade through this book with a critical mind and catalogue all of the places where the guardrails are missing or weak.


Tossed it.  The book is filled with indefensible nuggets.  For example, he explains that the word “experience” comes from the root of the word “perilous”, so experience implies overcoming adversity.  This is intellectual humbuggery.  Perhaps people once used the word that way, but not today, so it’s irrelevant.  He builds a whole palace of argument on that one point.  It’s the truck of charlatans to use numerology and linguistic tricks to redefine words in the listener’s mind.

Idea Slaves

Aaron Clauset has a rambling post attempting to contrast science favorably with non-science.  The key defining difference is easy to sum up; science seeks to disconfirm.  The rest of his post talks about things that are shared by science and non-science alike.

He does quote a useful little statement, which can be applied to the “Metcalfe’s Law” debates currently being retread by the A-List: “all models are wrong, but some models are more useful than others” (George Box).  I like the Richard Bandler variation, since it is more honest: “All generalizations are lies”.

The “Metcalfe’s Law” debate comes down to an argument about which “rule of thumb” is best for valuing networks.  It’s great debate fodder, because it can be used to kickstart any pet topic, like “it is/isn’t a bubble” (I agree with Umair), or “closed networks will die” (Closed networks/”moats” are still alive and well, but Marc’s ideas will win in the end).  But as Umair said last time the debate popped up, “it’s just a model, stupid!”

Since Aaron mentions Popper, I am reminded of George Soros’s crusade of the past ten years.  Adam Smith’s “Invisible Hand” theory has been responsible for massive wealth and liberty spread over the past couple of hundred years, but Soros points out that it is dangerous to extend it too far, saying “We need to maintain law and order. We need to maintain peace in the world. We need to protect the environment. We need to have some degree of social justice, equality of opportunity. The markets are not designed to take care of those needs. That’s a political process. And the market fundamentalists have managed to reduce providing those public goods.” 

In fact, his crusade seems to be falling on deaf ears.  The “market fundamentalists” are basically the same as the “evolutionary fundamentalists”, who are the same as the “scientific inquiry” fundamentalists.  And they are taking over everything.  I see evolutionary theory being used to explain all sorts of phenomena these days; and presumably all behaviors we have are related back to baboon’s desire to procreate and produce offspring.  Since B.F. Skinner is no longer fashionable, I’m trying to figure out how to train my dog via evolution (it will take a lot of dogs, but puppies are cute).  Or balance my checkbook (if we learn from mistakes, let’s make as many as possible).  All of these fundamentalists take their theories a bit too far, and fail to realize that all models have their limitations.

A rather disturbing example of this fundamentalist trifecta is the just-published “Origin of Wealth“.  Take a little bit of evolutionary “selfish gene” thinking, market speak, and cloak it in scientific discourse, and now market systems are practically laws of nature.


Book Review: Saving the Appearances

I hadn’t heard of Owen Barfield before last month. Based on an interesting quote and a recommendation that he has a “unique epistemology”, I picked up a copy of “Saving the Appearances“, and just finished reading it.

It turns out the book isn’t really an epistomology, but rather a treatise on the author’s opinions about the evolution of consciousness, and his thesis that the scientific revolution has left modern man with some largely unrecognized gaps in consciousness with relation to his environment.

This ended up being one of the best books I’ve read in a really long time. It deeply intertwines three of my favorite themes: Korzybski’s map/territory distinction, Ghazali’s reason versus faith debate, and Knowledge Representation. Barfield is incredibly erudite; pulling material from scores of sources and building some surprising and wickedly sharp arguments. Even when you find cracks in his arguments, you find that the intellectual ride is enjoyable.

The book starts with Barfield exploring the consciousness of totemic cultures. This is something I’ve been very interested in, from old Mongol and Native American culture to the writings of Castenada, I’ve always felt that the idea of anthropomorphism (or animism) was too naive. Barfield explains totemism completely differently. Rather than projecting a self-image onto nature, he posits that totemic cultures do not have a clear distinction between self and external and that totemism results from that. This was like a lightbulb to me; it rings true for many reasons. He draws this thesis from some linguists and anthropologists, but explains it persuasively.

He then goes on to make the case that the evolution of language and especially symbolic languages led to a greater distinction between self and nature, leading to increasing degrees of separateness between map and territory. One surprising assertion that he makes, and defends, is that Galileo was not excommunicated for the reasons we’re taught. He argues that Copernicus’s theories were no more endorsed by the Catholic church than Galileo’s. The difference was that Copernicus presented his theories as “one theory which matches the known observations of reality”, while Galileo presented his theory as “this is how reality is”. Up until Galileo, since Aristotle, all inquiry was meant to find theories which matched the observations. “It was not simply a new theory of the nature of celestial movements that was feared, but a new theory of the nature of theory; namely, that if a hypothesis saves all the appearances, it is identical with truth”.

Another surprising (and convincing) thesis is that Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas were not so stupid as we might think. We’re taught to think of human philosophy as a progressive evolution where each age corrects the errors of the previous and builds upon, so that the minds at the beginning of the chain are practically infantile. Barfield argues that the ancient philosophers were viewing the world through different lenses, before our age of reason had succeeded in completely isolating our thought-life from experience (the map/territory distinction), and that their philosophy was quite developed and remarkably consistent given their frame of reference. Viewed in this light, existentialism isn’t necessarily an advance, but rather a symptom of our changed frame of reference.

The next theme of interest is that of idols. He talks about what happens when people take a symbol that was meant to stand in for a real thing, and start to confuse that with the real thing. It’s clear enough that language should be a tool used by man, not a system in which man finds himself enslaved. But Barfield makes some interesting associations between the Abrahamite “make no images” and “word is God”. Anyone who has thought about the potential pitfalls of widespread KR knows that extra layers of semantic ambiguity can be dangerous, but Barfield takes it further — he practically argues that symbolic language (and the failure to realize that it’s *only* symbolic) is leading to an armaggedon, and furthermore, that Abraham (like a Hari Seldon) predicted and laid in place the antidote 3000 years ago. This is perhaps the most dramatic part of the book, and although I find the argument almost wholly unsubstantiated, it’s exhilarating in a Dan Brown sort of sense.

There are many clever quotes in the book. One made me think of large UML class diagrams, and the debates about ontological hell: “Only children run to the dictionary to settle an argument. But if we would consider the nature of meaning, and the nature between thought and things, we cannot profitably dispense with etymology. It is long since men gave up the notion that the variety of natural species and the secrets of their relation to each other can be understood apart from their history; but many speakers still seek to confine the science of language, as the Linnaeans once confined botany, within a sort of network of timeless abstractions. Method, for them, is another name for classification; but that is a blind alley.

Here is a choice quote that summarizes several arguments from various parts of the book; arguing that memory (aka semantic web) is a post-totemic idea that depends on lossy symbols. “As soon as unconscious or subconscious organic processes have been sufficiently polarized to give rise to phenomena on one side and consciousness on the other, memory is made possible. As consciousness develops into self-consciousness, the remembered phenomena become detatched or liberated from their originals and so, as images, are in some measure at man’s disposal. The more thoroughly participation has been eliminated, the more they are at the disposal of his imagination to employ as it chooses.

Book Review: The Art of Project Management

The Program Managerrole at Microsoft is not anything like the “Program Manager” role outside of Microsoft, and is not really the same as a “Project Manager” role at most places. Program Managers in product development are a mix of “Business Analyst” and “Project Manager”, with a few other things thrown in.

For people familiar with the way the rest of the world does things, it can be a bit disorienting to be thrown into the PM role at Microsoft. I’ve had several friends transition to the role, and always wished I had a book to give them that explains “how to be a PM at Microsoft”. While here at Microsoft, Scott Berkun used to run PM clinics which I and scores of other new PMs found very helpful. Now Scott has encapsulated all of his lessons learned into a book, “The Art of Project Management“, which I will highly recommend for new PMs. I’ve just finished reading the book; here ismy review:

To begin, the title is slightly misleading. It’s really about the “Program Manager” role as practiced by Microsoft, and Scott starts out by describing the genesis of this role at Microsoft — the rest of the book uses the term “Project Manager” instead of “Program Manager”, presumably because O’Reilly knew that “Program Manager” would be too confusing for people outside of Microsoft. It’s doubly confusing, because Microsoft actually does have an official job title for “Project Manager”, and this book is not about that role. This isn’t Scott’s fault; it’s just an unfortunate naming choice for the role; and the content will be incredibly useful for any software development managers.

The book is written as a sort of common-sense distillation of lessons learned from many years of PM experience. The writing style is simple, clear, and direct. Scott has spent a number of years teaching and presenting this content, so he is good at it. The content is well-organized and comprehensive. He covers spec writing, scheduling, phases of the project lifecycle, and soft skills. While I think it’s valuable to anyone managing software development, it also covers some of the peculiarities of Microsoft culture that a new PM will face. He even finds cause to quote Virgina Satir.

Although I now consider it required reading for new PMs, I did take issue with a few things in the book — mainly when Scott strayed outside the primary theme of the book. The primary theme could be “How to ship software in a completely safe, reliable, and predictable way”, which is something that all PMs should aspire to. The #1 cause of poor morale at Microsoft is schedule slip and churn, and this is 90% caused by poor management, including poor PM skills. So Scott’s book is aimed squarely at the heart of the problem. On the other hand, I think he goes a bit overboard with comments like:

“The hero complex most commonly develops in people who started their careers in startups.”

“So, instead of admitting their own failings, they depend on rewarding the brilliant, but possibly avoidable, heroic work of the engineering team.”

I’ll be the first to say that any project which relies on people working overtime is a failure of planning. But a team that doesn’t offer any chance of heroics is a pretty boring place, too. If you put a bunch of competitive people on a team, they’re going to work hard to earn the win, but they’re going to want to slam dunk the ball every now and then too. I wouldn’t go so far as saying that heroic efforts should be encouraged, but I think it’s wrong to paint them all with the same broad brush (what’s wrong with startups, anyway?). Some people need that sort of motivation, and those people can be good for the team. You don’t want a team of boring robots.

Despite the minor nits, this is the best PM resource I could hope for.


Years ago, my friend Graham used to keep a list of “Ways to Annoy People in Conversation”. For example, replace most meaningful words with vague prepositions, and at the same time liberally pepper with words like “exactly”, “precisely” (rasing eyebrow and punctuating finger for effect). “This is not right. I would have to say that it was the thing exactly what I am telling to you which doesn’t appear precisely to be the other one”. When the person attempts to elicit more detail, “which thing?”, respond with more prepositions. Another more subtle, but almost as maddening, trick is to always respond using exactly opposite modalities to the one which the person used.

Of course, the list of techniques was not meant to be used, it was simply a way of educating about good communication by poking fun atwhat not to do– made more funny by the fact that you know some people who do these things. It’s like the well-known list of “argument fallacies”, which funny as they might be to use in an argument that you don’t care to win, you normally have better things to do.

This is the same spirit of the people in on-line games known as “griefers”. These people find some loophole in the game that can be used to surprise or bewilder other people — normally it’s not the point to actually pester other players or cheat, it’s simply an urge to find and highlight the holes in the system.

In this spirit, I’ve always felt that a good companion to a “How to be a great PM” book would be a paper about “How to be a Jerk PM and Annoy Everyone on Your Team”. Not because you want to do these things, but because everyone knows at least a few PMs who do some of these things, and it’s better to laugh than be annoyed. And such a list would be a vivid demonstration of what not to do for new PMs. Product Studio; the interaction between Dev, Test, and PM; cross-team communications; and the triage process all provide rich fodder for such a list, and I have several good candidates. I’m not quite ready to share my list, but perhaps someday soon.

Book Review: Confessions of an Economic Hitman

I recently finished reading Confessions of an Economic Hitman. In this book, John Perkins writes about his career as a self-described?Economic Hitman?. Essentially, Perkins worked for a contracting company where he produced fraudulently inflated economic forecasts to justify large world bank and IMF loans to governments purchasing his company’s services. His company was the (erstwhile) MAIN, an infrastructure contracting company similar to Halliburton, Bechtel, or SAIC, where I used to work. These companies do large public works projects for governments around the world, in addition to other work.

The book starts out really strong, making you think that you’re about to read a tell-all expose of conspiracy on grand scale. In the first few pages, we read about a young John Perkins mentored by a mysterious woman who ?may or may not have worked for NSA?, and as he embarks on his first job as an ?EHM?, we expect the plot to thicken. But then, suddenly, things get boring. The rest of the book is a mildly dramatized tale of his involvement in projects over his career. No first-hand accounts of conspiracy, no direct involvement with NSA, CIA, or any other mysterious figures — just a ton of work on economic forecasting and project bids for foreign governments. Perkins doesn’t shy away from providing his own personal speculation and opinions about the events he witnesses, and cites historical examples of CIA manipulation in Central and South America. Butas an expose the book falls flat.Instead of conspiracy, he makes a more subtle argument, arguing that people like him are indirectly used as soldiers for the empire.

He even avoids the ?just following orders? arguments of the Nazis, going to great length to explain that he was never acting on orders, and that he acted mainly out of self interest. He spends a lot of time in the book arguing that he never really knew the full extent of what he was doing, and only at the end of his career realized that he had been used as a soldier. Or more accurately, he reports that he struggled with guilt, but only acknowledged his ?little Eichman? status after becoming fabuously wealthy and playing it for all it was worth.

On the other hand, the lack of direct evidence makes the book much more credible to me. He is usually careful to qualify his statements when he is speculating versus reporting facts, and the facts he reports are consistent with what you would expect from someone in his position in that line of work. In fact, from a pure factual standpoint, it is rather boring — many people in similar work probably have more colorful stories to tell, and Perkins seems sophisticated enough to stay away from direct revelations that would open him or hiscronies to any sort of prosecution. The book comes across as a rather sanitized (even boastful) account of a single man’s career, peppered liberally with political opinion.

Using anecdotes from his career, Perkins attempts to argue the following points:

  • World Bank and IMF debt help U.S. contractors and local despots more than the local populations. The debt is used as a lever to get developing nations to support U.S. political aims.
  • U.S. foreign policy is about self-interest of the empire; when debt fails as a lever, the U.S. uses coups, assassains and eventually war.
  • The people who profit from the empire are totally intertwined with the government.

From these premises, Perkins leaps to the conclusions that Americans should get used to conservation anda significantly reduced standard of living, ostensibly to mitigate the damaging effects of the global empire.

While I partially agree with his conclusions (but for a different reason), and agree that mercantilism is a driving force in western politics, I think Perkins presents a very incomplete picture.

For starters, he acts as if the U.S. is the sole power playing these games. He discusses the Middle East, South/Central America, and Indonesia, but fails to mention competitive nations’ involvement in these spheres of influence; and misses entirely other important spheres of influence. He portrays Panama’s takeback of the Panama canal as a huge victory for the people, but completely ignores the subsequent expansion of Chinese sphere of influence into this zone. If he thinks that there will ever be a time when mercantile powers don’t vie for control of spheres of influence, he’s crazy, and if he doesn’t, he’s simply arguing that the U.S. should lay down slowly and make way for a new master.

Furthermore, he waits until the very last chapter of his book to acknowledge that the U.S. is relatively vulnerable in the battles as well. While he argues that it’s the fault of the U.S. for the massive outflow of credit since WWII (as if the people borrowing the money from world bank and IMF didn’t have their own economists, or didn’t act out of self-interest), he seems to place no such blame on the lenders for the massive accumulation of debt by the U.S. in recent decades. He explains that the U.S. is in debt up to our eyeballs, and that the U.S. standard of living is pretty much dependent on the whims of foreign investors — strangely, he does not identify these foreign lenders as ?economic hitmen?. If the dollar is deposed, as he predicts, it would certainly lead to a reduction in the consumption patterns of Americans; so perhaps he’s just arguing that we cut our consumption now and pretend that it was out of altruistic motives (to protect the rainforests or something). Or maybe he’s worried that a plummet in the dollar would lead Americans to jingoism and spark WWIII, and he hopes to turn us all into birkenstock-wearing environmentalists before that happens. Or maybe he’s just worried and doesn’t know what to do.

In any case, he’s not the typical conspiracy theorist anti-globalist, and he comes across as relatively sincere and honest. So, on balance, I would recommend the book.

Windows “Brand” and Blogs

When I first read Ries’ ?22 Immutable Laws of Marketing?, I remember comparing it to Microsoft’s own experience of marketing and wondering, ?if Microsoft violates so many of these laws, why are we so successful?? Microsoft has a long history of attempting to ?extend? the ?Windows Brand? into other categories, one of the more severe violations of immutable law. People involved with enterprise sales at Microsoft will have anecdotes about overcoming customer concerns about stability in the Windows Server (?if NT is completely different codefrom Windows 95, and it doesn’t crash, then why do you call it ‘Windows’?). And the examples of renaming ?Windows CE? to ?Pocket PC?, or launching ?Xbox? instead of ?Windows Gaming Console? convinced me that Ries was correct. I recall a recent decision to rename ?Mira? to ?Windows CE for Smart Displays?; so the urge toward brand extension has not been extinguished.

I also read ?Positioning?, and ?22 Immutable Laws of Branding? when they came out; both were excellent, and provided many intuitions about things I observed. Over the years, I’ve often found myself referring to these books in conversation, or holding imaginary debates with the authors when thinking about particular marketing challenges (not that I get paid to think about marketing, but…).

So reading the blogs, I see thatJohn Porcaro asked Laura Ries her for some of her thoughts on Microsoft and branding. The answers were just as interesting as I would have expected. Al Ries responded with a comment on John’s blog, and then the conversation continued over on Brand Mantra, where Jennifer Rice asked Laura the ultimate question: ?If Microsoft so flagrantly abuses brand extension…? How cool is this? Laura and Al Ries are having a conversation about a bunch of the issues that I’ve wondered about, and it’s not even in my imagination.

Of course, I’ve developed some of my own opinions about that specific question: why Microsoft sometimes gets away with seeming violations of the immutable laws of branding. As Luigi Pirandello in ?Six Characters in Search of an Author? says, ?Some things, no matter how improbable they may seem, require no explanation; because they are.? But we make up excuses anyway. My theory is that ?brand extension? has sometimes worked (or at least avoided punishment) simply because some of the other immutable laws were applied so effectively. The simple mission of ?A computer on every desktop, running Microsoft Software? was crisp and clean enough that Microsoft became equated in people’s minds with ?the software that runs on my computer?. It’s what people thought of the company, because it’s all the company focused on, like a laser beam.This period inMicrosoft historyof such single-minded mission is a case study from ?Built to Last?. As the authors have pointed out, having a clear, unambiguous mission fora brandgoes a long way toward developing a clear unambiguous mapping between brand and value in the customers’ minds. Even once the original mission had been largely achieved, I can recall several instances where Steve Ballmer communicated unambiguous goals for a particular brand. For example,?I want Office to bethe single must-have piece of software that atypical knowledge worker can’t live without. Ifshe can get her work done on a typical day without ever having to leavethe Office suite, we’ve succeeded?.This is audacious, but simple. This issomething the whole team canfocus on like a laser beam. Although people like to point to things like Microsoft?leveraging? market share, or ?embracing and extending? others’ innovations, I think focus on such crisp missions more than anything else is the success factor that explains the initiatives that have succeeded.

Seattle Public Library and RFID

I’ve finally been to the new, internationally acclaimed, Seattle Public Library. I’ve been a few times, checked out and returned books. Since everyone so far has offered glowing reviews, I’ll focus on the things I don’t like about the library.

First, there are three elevators, and 10 or more floors. The elevators are the only way to get up and down from parking garage. There are no stairs. This is hostile to a healthy lifestyle, and the elevators take forever to arrive (and are invariably crowded). The elevators on upper levels have status lights to tell you which floor the elevator is on, but not in the parking garage.

Next, there are several places where perfectly passable spaces are blocked off by shin-level railings. This could be dangerous or painful. There are crotch-level railings, too. Other places, the walls bend and curve and make it easy to bump your head. The fourth level is painted an angry red; and has lumpy walls of sheetmetal which, though perhaps ?artistic?, are unnecessary and claustrophobic. Reading areas are exposed to major throughfares, and completely unprotected from noisythrongs of people and tour guides.

The checkout process is a step in the right direction, but stops a bit short. The books are tagged with RFID, which allows the computer to detect all of the books you have almost magically. However, you still need to scan your library card with barcode scanner, which kind of defeats the purpose of RFID. If the library card were RFID, you could just walk out of the library and have the checkout process happen automatically; without having to stop and pull out any cards, set down the books, etc.For book returns, you can drop your books in a conveyor belt, and the machineuses the RFID to record that you have returned the book and route to the appropriate reshelving station. However, the process only works with about half of the books, so it can take anywhere from 1 minute to 10 hours before the system recognizes your return.

Some hints of coming RFID support from Microsoft.

Baudolino: Umberto Eco

Just finished reading Baudolino, by Umberto Eco. It was good enough that I kept reading through to the end, but rather disappointing compared to The Name Of The Rose or Foucault’s Pendulum. Baudolino is a poor simple peasant who is picked up by a king and uses his wits to survive. The book is a story of his exploits during the middle ages, as he uses lies and storytelling to alter the course of history. Eventually, Baudolino forms alliances with other liars, and they run off on a quest that increasingly resembles a Breugel painting. “Rose” and “Pendulum” both deal with themes of faith, devotion, love, and mystery, which is perhaps part of their appeal. Baudolino, on the other hand, is a rather crass and materialistic fellow who wears his religion only because of expedience and social obedience. The book attempts at time to give Baudolino some depth, but he comes across as rather shallow and unsympathetic. The book gets smugly preachy at times, seeming to delight in ever-greater examples of how history itself may be a lie, religious extremism is dangerous, and so on — but without a very sympathetic or believable charater, the preaching gets boring.