» Archive for the 'Book Review' Category

Technology in Every Nook and Cranny

Sunday, January 11th, 1998 by Jonathan Spira

Book review:

What Will Be: How the New World of Information Will Change Our Lives, by Michael Dertouzos, published by HarperEdge.

Michael Dertouzos has a good track record.  In 1975, he predicted the emergence of a PC in every 3-4 homes by the mid-1990s.  As directory of MIT’s Laboratory for Computer Science since 1974, he has been responsible for some of the most significant technological advances this century.

In What Will Be, Dertouzos confronts and dispels much of the hype surrounding the future of computer technology and its impact on daily life.  What will happen to commerce and the economy?  What  could a typical day in the mid-21st century be like?  Will the Information Revolution be as profound as the Agricultural and Industrial revolutions before it?  And what will be the impact on John Q. Public?

In perhaps one of the most profound insights made, and Dertouzos quickly qualifies this comment as “outrageous” although this review thinks it perhaps realistic, he wonders whether we will speak of a nation having not physical boundaries but being more of a network of interconnected people, linking all Greeks as the “Greek Network”.

Of course, as society is transformed, the gap between both rich people and poor people and rich countries and poor countries may widen; however, as the limitations of time and space are removed from the equation, people will be able to interact in a far more heterogeneous environment on line, which is where more work and recreation will be conducted.

Dertouzos’ greatest contribution through What Will Be should be an even greater interest in conceptualizing the world of the technological future and thereby allowing a greater number of individuals to contribute to it.

You can order What Will Be right now from Amazon.com.

Jonathan B. Spira is the CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex.  This article originally appeared in the Basex Online Journal of Industry and Commerce (BOJIC).

Inventing the Internet

Saturday, January 3rd, 1998 by Jonathan Spira

Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins of the Internet, by Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyon, published by Simon & Schuster.

In the late 1960s, the Defense Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) funded the creation of a network to facilitate computer communication between DOD-funded research universities.  This experiment became the basis of a facility we take for granted everyday, the Internet.

Where Wizards Stay Up Late narrates the story of the small group of computer scientists, researchers and engineers who, both independently and working in small groups, studied and tested just what it would take to link computers spread across an entire nation.

Wizards tells the story of Bolt Beranek and Newman (BBN), a small consulting firm in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who first built the “glue” that held the network together, the IMP (Interface Message Processor), and managed network operations for years to come.

Wizards tells the story of how the first Request for Comment (“RFC”) was created (in a bathroom), and how, through what one might refer to as strategic stumbling, a series of discoveries, from electronic mail (then “network mail”) to what has perhaps defined Internet iconography more than anything else, the “@” symbol.

By the time the ARPANET was retired in 1990, it had become fully integrated in its descendants, the NSFNet and the Internet itself.

Wizards is written in a lively and totally comprehensible manner; along the way, its compelling story answers many questions you may or should have had about why things exist on the Net the way they do.

And I stayed up late just to finish this book.

You can order Wizards now from Amazon.com.

Jonathan B. Spira is the CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex.  This article originally appeared in the Basex Online Journal of Industry and Commerce (BOJIC).

Tales of the Great Groups

Thursday, April 24th, 1997 by Jonathan Spira

Organizing Genius: The Secrets of Creative Collaboration, by Warren Bennis and Patricia Ward Biederman, published by Addison Wesley

What differentiates a bunch of people working together from a “Great Group”?  Why do some groups of extra-ordinarily talented individuals produce greatness while others wallow in mediocrity?

A “Great Group” results “from a mutually respectful marriage between an able leader and an assemblage of extraordinary people.”  Groups go on to greatness only when each among them is “free to do his or her absolute best.”  In his Introduction, Bennis portends that this book is “about organizing gifted people” in ways that allow them both “to achieve great things and to experience the joy and personal transformation that such accomplishment brings.  Yet, once completing the tome, it would appear that Bennis’ comment is teleological.  Characterizing groups such as Disney’s Animation Studio, the Manhattan Project, the Skunk Works at Lockheed, and the team that created the Apple Macintosh computer, as great is something no one would contest.  However, in order to give further credence to Bennis’ argument, a contrasting study would have to be conducted to look at groups with similar demographics which did not become similarly “great.”

Organizing Genius is more Bennis’ attempt (and a reasonably successful one) to identify a new trend in leadership, that of the greatest and most innovative breakthroughs originating from highly creative and productive teams rather than one great leader.

The story of each Great Group is compelling and fascinating.  The lessons that one can take from even a sampling of these experiences is extremely valuable.  And that is Organizing Genius at its best.  It takes us inside the psyche of the minds of the leaders and chief members of these groups and teaches us the value in creating environments which foster creativity.

Bennis derives 15 “lessons” of the Great Groups, a few of which are especially compelling.  These are

·    Every Great Group has a strong leader
·    Great Groups and great leaders create each other
·    The leaders of Great Groups love talent and know where to find it
·    Great Groups think they are on a mission from God
·    People in Great Groups have no distractions
·    Great Groups are optimistic, not realistic
·    Great Groups always deliver a product
·    Great work is its own reward

In sum, before starting your next project, read the tales of these Great Groups and you’ll find that just reading this work will imbue some of the greatness in your work.

You can order Organizing Genius right now from Amazon.com.

Jonathan B. Spira is the CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex.  This article originally appeared in the Basex Online Journal of Industry and Commerce (BOJIC).

The Trouble with Computers

Wednesday, February 19th, 1997 by Jonathan Spira

Review:  The Trouble with Computers: Usefullness, Usability, and Productivity by Thomas K. Landauer

From its title, The Trouble with Computers sounds as if it is a work founded on pessimism. Do not let the title fool you. While Thomas K. Landauer, a Professor of Psychology and Fellow of The Institute of Cognitive Science at the University of Colorado, does believe that the computer age has been over hyped and has fallen short of promised gains, we are instructed that we shouldn’t necessarily conclude that this has been an experiment gone amiss. Computers and computer users are, however, in a lot of trouble, and unless changes are made in the way that computers and applications work, look and feel, productivity will continue to remain flat.

So, end-users, do not throw away your computers, sharpen your pencils and take the abacus out of storage; instead, urge developers and hardware manufacturers to take your needs and abilities in to account when they design their products. For, according to Landauer’s thesis, the broken productivity promise is largely the fault of these same developers. They are often too concerned with an “elegant solution”; needless features are added to applications, because they help the marketing process along. Products are designed in such a way as to make the software uninviting and even impossible to use.

There is, however, a solution to this problem, and it makes Landauer’s view of the Information Technology productivity “myth” an optimistic one. Developers, listen up: listen to and notice your intended users. Test your products out on the intended users of your products, and listen to the feedback they provide. This is user-centric design. And what are the benefits of user-centric design? Try, if you will, a reduction in training costs, lower employee turnover, and an increase in satisfaction among your users and customers. On a more long-term basis, one can expect from time to time that user-centric design will act as an incubator for new and exciting ideas.

Landauer presents a compelling argument, with incredibly on-target (and often quite amusing) anecdotal backup. There are countless applications on the market today designed in such way as to make them unusable; interfaces are cluttered and complicated, manuals are impossible to read, and processes are nonsensical. Even if you disagree with the econometric data supporting his productivity argument, Landauer’s book serves as a cautionary tale as to the excesses of software development teams. His is an eye-opening argument, and all who are involved with the implementation of information technology would do well to consider his remedies.

You can order The Trouble with Computers right now from Amazon.com.

Jonathan B. Spira is the CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex.  This article originally appeared in the Basex Online Journal of Industry and Commerce (BOJIC).

Book Review: Dave Barry in Cyberspace

Sunday, February 2nd, 1997 by Jonathan Spira

Dave Barry in Cyberspace

Dave Barry in Cyberspace should have been entitled “Dave Barry Reveals the Mysteries of the Cyberworld” as Mr  Barry takes us on a tour of Cyberspace in a “simple, practical, well-organized” manner, much of which he admittedly makes up as he goes along.  And lest you think his topics are strictly relating to the nuts and bolts of computing, Barry explains concepts which may have baffled even the most sophisticated users.  For example, take the airline business.  According to Barry, the airline industry, now that it has developed a computerized fare system that ensures that no two passengers on the same flight pay the same fare, is now working on a system that ensures that no two passengers in the history of aviation pay the same amount.  Progress, eh?

And Barry is well-equipped as a master of Cyberspace, having owned everything from a Radio Shack TRS-80 (which he describes as a “mutant toaster oven”) to the latest Pentium models, which enable him to multitask.  Multitasking is so fascinating to him that, while authoring this tome, he checks his e-mail and plays “ABM Commander”; he also points out that those less technically sophisticated authors, Chaucer among them, would have had to exit their documents before starting their favorite game.

Curious about the history of MS-DOS error messages?  You can find the answer within. Planning on buying a computer?  Barry will tell you where and how much (usually, “$350″ less than you will have paid).

Not certain as to which operating system you should install on your computer?  Emphasizes Dave Barry:  “Whichever one is already on your computer.”  Indeed, in Barry’s world, installing a new operating system can result in the following error message:

“The Installation Program has determined that a conflict exists … Shall the Installation Program reallocate the Motherboard Transfer Polarity Replication Allotment…?  Bear in mind that if you answer this question incorrectly, … innocent people could die.”

If you do install your own software, however, the advice Barry gives is invaluable.  “Open the software packaging and remove the manual… Throw it away.”

The hottest topic, of course, is the Internet.  And Barry addresses a question that has puzzled research institutions and computer scientists worldwide, namely, who runs the Internet.  Explains Barry: “A thirteen year-old named Jason.”   And if you’re concerned that, as you embark upon the Information Superhighway, you might make a mistake in typing the complex names of various Web sites, relax, as Barry advise that the worst that could happen if you type a single incorrect character is that “you will launch U.S. nuclear missiles against Norway.”

Barry also  provides the definitive reference on emoticons, those “smiley” symbols that people use to express emotion, such as :>).    Here, for the very first time, are
:-|     Person unsure of which long-distance company to choose
>8-O-(&)Person just realizing that he or she has a tapeworm

Don’t read Dave Barry in Cyberspace in public; you most likely will feel an uncontrollable urge to burst out laughing and, if you’re reading this during a meeting during which you’re supposed to be paying attention, there may be some undesirable side effects!

You can order Dave Barry in Cyberspace right now from Amazon.com.

Jonathan B. Spira is the CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex.  This article originally appeared in the Basex Online Journal of Industry and Commerce (BOJIC).