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Book Review: The Status Seekers

Friday, December 12th, 2008 by Jonathan Spira

The Status Seekers
Vance Packard

With so much concern about the “Digital Divide” which may occur in the United States between the Net-haves and the Net-Have-Nots, I dusted off my trusty 1959 copy (older than me!) of Vance Packard’s The Status Seekers, which is a very accessibly written book by a sociologist about class differences in the United States in the 1950′s.  Vance Packard first made his name in 1957 with his best-selling work, The Hidden Persuaders, which discusses how marketers influence and manipulate consumer thought and perception.

It’s very difficult to write about class and class differences and still come off sounding non-judgemental.  This is something which Packard does handily.  Packard starts off with a look at what many in the United States believe to be a classless society.  Of course, this is not the case, and is an impossibility in any society, as members of each class need each other.  Packard is at his best when he examines “Behavior which gives us away” – an honest and revealing look at habits and traits of different folk from different stratas of society.  He has his own vision of the American Dream: family, community, individualism, etc.  Today, we might call this “family values,” but Packard’s come without the right-wing extremism.

Granted, Packard is anecdotal and cites colleagues and stories far more than statistics.  Academics looked down on him in his day as a “pop sociologist” and marketers (thanks to The Hidden Persuaders) denounced him as a “morality huckster.”

In his later years, Packard was treated with greater respect.  He was the subject of a serious 1994 biography (by Daniel Horowitz).  And historian Jackson Lears, in a New Republic review of his work, wrote that Packard “deserves a place alongside more formidably intellectual figures in any history of twentieth-century thought.”  Packard articulated what others were afraid to say.  And he did so in a book that reached the very audience that needed to hear it.

Order American Social Classes in the 1950s (selections from The Status Seekers) (the original is no longer in print) online right now from amazon.com.

Jonathan B. Spira is the CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex.

Book Review: Alphabet to E-mail

Monday, November 12th, 2007 by Jonathan Spira

Alphabet to E-mail
by Naomi S. Baron

Do U feel OK to write msgs NE way you pls?  Or do you think that we should spend as much care and attention in the composition and writing of e-mail messages as we would writing notes with pen and paper?  The very intangibility of electronic messages has created a situation in which the normal rules of written communication (historically much more formal than spoken language) have entered a new era.

Whilst some believe that no less effort should be made in e-mail communication, as many people apparently find it acceptable to write electronic notes, even to strangers, that are terse to the point of rudeness in the eyes of others.  “Please” and “Thank you” are often lost to the sake of brevity and efficiency – something which this reporter, personally, finds quite disturbing on receipt of a message; yet judging from most of the messages in my inbox, I think I must be in the minority.  The fact is that there are no rules, as yet and certainly no reference books that can offer guidance on e-mail etiquette.  In the last five or ten years, society has embraced e-mail to an astonishing extent – yet nobody is quite sure exactly what it is, and how it should be used.

So how did we get to this state of affairs?  Naomi Baron has tried to tackle this very question, in this book which traces the development of written English through from the pre-printing press age to e-mail and instant messaging.  Baron’s emphasis, as you might expect from a professor of Linguistics, is on writers’ style and the decreasing levels of formality used on the page (or screen).  It’s an interesting read, and does a good job of trying to develop a coherent theory of how and why we have arrived at the ways in which we use the language today; but ultimately, she has no definite answers (the book’s last chapter is entitled “Why the Jury’s Still Out on E-mail”.)

Order it now (or if not now, perhaps L8R!) at amazon.com

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex.

Book Review: The Invisible Computer

Thursday, January 29th, 2004 by Steven Morgan Friedman

The Invisible Computer
By Donald A Norman
Published By MIT Press

Review by Cassandra Mays

In The Invisible Computer, Donald Norman argues that “people are analog, not digital, biological not mechanical.  It is time for a human centered technology, a humane technology.”  He believes the computer industry is trapped by its own success, having to constantly produce faster more complex products.  The result, he claims, is intrusive and over-bearing technology.

Norman’s answer to this is to start over again with simple information appliances that are focused on the user.  Consequently, Norman argues manufacturers must develop a new approach to developing products by restructuring, changing processes and hiring people with human-centered skills in addition to technology-centered ones.  The result, if we are to take Normans word, is the “invisible computer” in which the technology disappears and humans can then focus on activities, learning, and doing their jobs.

Whether or not you agree with Norman, his arguments are well written and easily understood.  He does raise some interesting arguments such as, that “people should learn the task, not the technology.”  I believe, though, that  Norman is too idealistic, and as a result, his arguments can seem a little unbalanced.  For example, he fails to acknowledge that technology-focused companies have, and continue to make, very real contributions to simplifying our lifestyles and work processes.

Overall, Norman’s book, whilst both provocative and thoughtful, is too one-sided and ultimately one is left interested but unconvinced.

You can order this book online by clicking here:

Book Review: Unleashing the Killer App

Friday, November 22nd, 2002 by Steven Morgan Friedman

Unleashing the Killer App
by Larry Downes and Chunka Mui
Published by Harvard Business School Press

Did we really take 1998 seriously? At the height of the dot-com days, a time in which Pets.com was funded and the Internet was poised to change the fundamentals of human nature, even the most respectable publishers, writers, thinkers felt the pressure to admit that something was changing and those who didn’t were curmudgeons or, even worse back then, Luddites.

Today, when the rhetoric of the Luddites has triumphed over the rhetoric of the dot-coms (although the technology of the dot-coms is only now triumping over the non-technology of the Luddites!), it is a humorous experience to re-read the earnest rhetoric of 1998. This is precisely how I felt when I read “Unleashing the Killer App,” by Larry Downes and Chunka Mui, and published by the respectable Harvard Business School Press. Did the great business school really take itself seriously when it was publishing these words?

Standards of social scientific evidence are lifted for the book, as are serious case studies — ironically, the method for which HBS itself has gained fame. Instead, the book is full of great generalities — all of which may or may not be true but the book makes no compelling cases. With a straight face, it urges businesses everywhere to, for example, “cannabalize your markets” and “give away the store” and “destroy your value chain” and the justification for these is a clear articulation of the vision for the changing world. But “evidence” beyond the most flimsy examples is not present (so an online newspaper should give away its content for free just because you tell us the New York Times to San Jose mercury news do it, too? That is certainly a logical leap!). And it is written with a journalist’s attitude, removed from the hard lessons of real life that no company or person can, for example, easily or readily cannibalize itself, or even that doing so would be worth it.

The book, for all its flaws, is a book of its time, and it should always be remembered as a book whose spirit captures perfectly that of 1998. And it is at least somewhat unfair of any modern to criticize those who came before him whose only flaw was not having the wisdom of hindsight that we have. But, no matter how great the boom around you may be, there is no excuse for the suspension of the rules of reason. It is precisely this suspension that got us to where we are today.

If you still want to buy this book, you can order it at amazon.com.

Killed by Proximity

Friday, March 22nd, 2002 by Jonathan Spira

Killed by Proximity

The Death of Distance: How the Communications Revolution Will Change Our Lives, by Frances Cairncross, published by the Harvard Business School Press.

The Industrial Revolution changed the rules of commerce by making it practical for a merchant to travel relatively rapidly to a distant town or city.  In this volume, the eminent Economist journalist Frances Cairncross explains what happens in a world where distance no longer controls the cost of communication.  The “Death of Distance” will, predicts Cairncross, become a force to be reckoned with, a force that will reshape the globe over the next half century.

In clear, concise language, Cairncross shows how this Death of Distance will be both democratizing and liberating, possibly leading to an environment where global conflicts will arise less often due to an increased familiarity among different cultures.

How will The Death of Distance impact relationships between a country and its citizens, employer and employees, parents and children?  What will change in how we view our home and work lives, our personal and business relationships, even our national loyalties?

In what may prove to be a remarkably prophetic “Trendspotter’s Guide to New Communications,” Cairncross outlines the 30 most important developments that one should observe as distance “gasps” for its last breath.  Countries will compete for citizens by offering superior services.  Time zones and language will supplant distance.  Smaller companies will compete favorably with larger ones, and more organizations will take on “virtual” characteristics, similar, the author notes, to how Hollywood forms production companies for a single film.

Cairncross cites contemporary examples of trendsetting companies as an example of the future norm.  And she emphasizes that information will, in effect, become the great leveler of society.  Governments, for example, will be far better informed about what other governments are doing, leaving less room for a misunderstanding to occur.  And the young people of poorer nations may be able to capitalize on the flexibility and creativity  of youth to gain a competitive advantage.

You can order this book online right now.

Jonathan B. Spira is the Chief Analyst at Basex.

Book Review: Devices of Wonder

Friday, December 28th, 2001 by Jonathan Spira

Devices of Wonder
From the World in a Box to Images on a Screen
Barbara Maria Stafford and Frances Terpak
Getty Research Institute

Oftentimes, state-of-the-art is relative.  Take the famous Vaucanson duck, a quacking automaton that captured the hearts of eighteenth-century audiences with its “ability” to swallow, digest (and defecate) food.  Or eighteenth- and nineteenth-century “panoramas,” immense paintings that surrounded the viewer in three dimensions (so realistic as to have reportedly caused one viewer, the Queen of England, to become seasick, while visiting a naval panorama).  If you have an interest in android automata, cameras obscura,  perspective theaters, vues d’optique, microscopes, magic lanterns, not to mention boxes by Joseph Cornell and a pop-up book by Kara Walker, this compendium of devices and gadgets form a fascinating timeline of our attempts to use technology to see the world.  Today’s devices, including the television and laptop computer, owe their existence to a rich heritage, inspired by centuries of lensed, boxed and projective apparatus.

Published by the Getty Research Institute, this work is the accompaniment to an exhibit at the Getty, which runs through mid-February.   See for yourself at http://www.getty.edu/art/exhibitions/devices/choice.html (the Flash version is highly recommended).

You can order this book on line right now by clicking here.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex.

Book Review: When Things Start to Think

Friday, April 27th, 2001 by Steven Morgan Friedman

When Things Start to Think
By Neil Gershenfeld

Review by Toby Keel

A few weeks ago, a news item crossed my desk talking about a mobile phone – made of paper…   Yes, you did read that correctly!   If you don’t find it astonishing that such a thing could ever exist, then Neil Gershenfeld’s book is probably not for you; however, if you do, then you will marvel for days at some of the ideas contained within its pages.

Gershenfeld is the head of MIT’s Media Lab, a research department dedicated to looking at the ways in which technology might be incorporated into our lives.  From the picture that is painted of Media Lab in the book, it sounds like an unusual place to say the least…. graduate students wearing video cameras over their eyes, drinking coffee that is automatically freshly brewed and delivered according to a computerized schedule that analyzes and remembers coffee-drinking habits, “printing” their research projects not on paper, but in three dimensions.  It sounds like the sort of place where you would not want to spend too long, yet it is clearly a place whose discoveries we should all be grateful for – such as the airbag that doesn’t inflate if it might injure a child sitting in the car seat.

The ideas are solidly rooted in common sense and practicality; the author clearly enjoys a “hands-on” approach, being as enthusiastic about time spent creating real-world prototypes as he is about discussing theories of quantum mechanics.  This realism and practicality extends to Gershenfeld’s ideas about the use of technology.  The Digital Revolution, he claims, has created a technological society in which it is the machines that have the upper hand; technology for its own sake, or that generates more problems than it solves (programming a VCR, anybody?), is a backwards step.  When people want to read, they prefer to read paper, he says, so why not make digital information available on paper?  It may sound preposterous, but one bright researcher at Media Lab actually managed to create electronic ink, as easy an clear to read as any book, yet able to change appearance like an LCD screen.  The electronic ink, it was found, could also be used to print logic circuits on to a piece of paper…. and a year or two down the line, a news item appears about a disposable cell phone made from paper!  [Incidentally, the news release finished with the announcement that the paper laptop computer was the company's next project.]

What makes this book so enjoyable is that Gershenfeld possesses a rare talent, one shared by only a few science writers (Richard Dawkins, for example): he is a technical specialist with a knack for explaining complex ideas in an easily understandable way.  “When Things Start to Think” is an eye-opening and highly readable book about where we are, and where we may be sooner than you think!

Order it now online.

Book Review: Can Japan Compete?

Friday, March 16th, 2001 by Steven Morgan Friedman

Can Japan Compete?
Michael E. Porter, Hirotaka Takeuchi, and Mariko Sakakibara

By Daniel Gabai

Can Japan Compete?, by Harvard Business School Professor Michael Porter and his colleagues, Hirotaka Takeuchi and Mariko Sakakibara, seeks to explain the reasons for the market failure that Japan experienced in the mid-1990s.  The book analyzes Japan’s economic system from the end of World War 2 until the present.  It attempts to explain how the Japanese model – an economic system that was historically more egalitarian and more efficient than the capitalism of the West – did not actually achieve success through its practices of total quality, continuous improvement, and “just-in-time” inventory.  Rather, these practices, coupled with Japan’s “government-as-active-economic-director”, were responsible for many Japanese companies reaching a point of zero-sum-competition, where no participants were able to achieve profitability.

Can Japan Compete? shows how the Japanese government has had a surprisingly small role in many of its nation’s most internationally competitive industries: cars, video recorders, robotics, cameras, and video games.  Conversely, the book shows how there was extensive government intervention in the uncompetitive industries of chemicals, software, aircraft, and financial services.

Porter and company attempt to illustrate how the United States learned the wrong lessons from Japan about government policy.  Through its thorough review of the Japanese economic system the book offers a word of caution to American corporations, so they perhaps can avoid a similar fate of economic decline.  Can Japan Compete? concludes with Japan’s attempts to fix its economic mistakes, and thus ensure a successful position in future economic markets.

Can Japan Compete? is a well argued and successful plea to businessmen everywhere not to make the same managerial and structural mistakes that were made by Japanese businessmen.  Additionally, it proves to be a thought provoking and enjoyable history of the world’s second largest economy.

You can order this book on line right now.

Book Review: One Good Turn

Tuesday, December 12th, 2000 by Jonathan Spira

One Good Turn
Witold Rybczynski

Just as David Ewing Duncan used the Calendar as a means of viewing the history of the world (see Calendar: Humanity’s Epic Struggle to Determine a True and Accurate Year, by David Ewing Duncan, published by Avon Books, available at  Amazon.com), Witold Rybczynski, in One Good Turn: A Natural History of the Screwdriver and the Screw, takes the reader through a survey of twentieth century mechanical history in highlighting an important invention which today is certainly taken for granted.

One Good Turn is the story of Archimedes, who invented the water screw and introduced the helix, and Leonardo, who drafted a sketch of a machine for carving wood screws.  One Good Turn is the story of discovery from Ancient Greece to the Italian Renaissance, to industrialization in the Americas.

Although wars were not fought over the screwdriver, the war industry played a role in its history.  The First World War diverted attention away from Canadian Peter L. Robertson’s improved screw-screwdriver combination (which, in the late twentieth century, Consumers Reports magazine rated as being vastly superior to its Phillips counterpart – the Robertson model “worked faster with less cam-out”.)

Wartime industry during the Second World War ensured the adoption of Henry E. Phillips’ (yes there was a Phillips behind the Phillips screw and screwdriver) product as an industry standard, as momentum from the automotive industry’s adoption  of socket screws (starting with the 1936 Cadillac) made this socket screw an important component of the war machine.

Rybczynski’s project started when editors of the New York Times asked him to write an essay identifying the “best tool of the millennium.”  Without the screw, there would be no telescope, no microscope, perhaps no Internet – no scientific apparatus which requires any degree of precision and craftsmanship.

You can order this book on line right now at Amazon.com.

Jonathan B. Spira is the CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex.

Book Review: Calendar – Humanity’s Epic Struggle to Determine a True and Accurate Year

Thursday, December 31st, 1998 by Jonathan Spira

Calendar
Humanity’s Epic Struggle to Determine a True and Accurate Year
David Ewing Duncan
Avon Books

A brief history of the world, as viewed through the one information container that has become a universal yardstick for measuring progress, is presented by David Ewing Duncan, who takes the reader from the first recorded date to the present.  Duncan, with the powerful drama of cultures from Vedic India and Cleopatra’s Egypt to a cast of characters which
includes Julius Caesar and Omar Khayyam , demonstrates how, as the various peoples of the world have struggled to record time, they have by and large gotten it wrong, at the same time causing both war and strategic alliances throughout the world.

You can order this book on line right now at Amazon.com.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex.


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