Monday, 6 September 2010

Monday, 30 August 2010

Video: The Machine that Changed the World

This 5 part documentary chronicles the history of computers from the 17th century to 1990 – from Charles Babbage’s vision of a calculating machine, to the Personal Computer of today.  It takes the viewers back to the original motivation for creating such machines, and outlines the many breakthrough innovations such as integrated circuits, and why they are significant.  This is a very well done documentary.


Book: Good to Great by Jim Collins

Score: 4.5/5

In this book, author Jim Collins tries to answer the question “why did some companies start from a normal/good/bad performance to achieve great results later”.  A case study method was used where companies fitting the criteria of such performance leap were chosen, and another set of companies with roughly comparable performance and industry were chosen as comparisons.  Collins and his research team then tries to look for patterns in the good-to-great companies.

I really enjoyed reading this well researched book.  In many instances it’s as if Mr. Collins was reading my mind.  As I thought “well, what if x happens”, and his next section would address x.  Many insights were dispensed in this manner, demystifying many common beliefs about a successful company or leader.  I highly recommend this book.

I feel I can’t do justice to the insights of the book without all the context, so here’s the ending thought from the book for you to think about what’s your motivation for greatness:

When all these pieces (from the book) come together, not only does your work move toward greatness, but so does your life.  For, in the end, it is impossible to have a great life unless it is a meaningful life.  And it is very difficult to have a meaningful life without meaningful work.  Perhaps, then, you might gain that rare tranquility that comes from knowing that you’ve had a hand in creating something of intrinsic excellence that makes a contribution.  Indeed, you might even gain that deepest of all satisfactions: knowing that your short time here on this earth has been well spent, and that it mattered.

Monday, 23 August 2010

Book Afterthought: Delivering Happiness by Tony Hsieh

Score: 4/5

Delivering Happiness is written by the CEO of Zappos, Tony Hsieh.  Zappos is an online company that sells shoes, a bit like the Amazon of shoes.  Zappos had gone from zero to 1 billion in revenue in 10 years through exceptional customer service, with jaw-dropping policies such as 365 days return period for shoes sold online.

In this book, Tony outlines how he grew up and ended up being the CEO of Zappos, what lessons he had learned through running the business, and where he sees the company and going in the future.

It’s a great book and easy to read.  I especially enjoyed the candor and a little weirdness of Tony.  The later part of the book was a little long and repetitive, but overall I really enjoyed the book.  Below are some of my favourite moments/quotes.

1. Much of our sense of reality is perception.  At one point Zappos was weeks from going out of business from lack of cash.  The source of funds was unclear.  During this time Tony took a trip he had planned for a long time to climb a mountain, and here’s his experience:

The next four days hiking up Kilimanjaro tested my physical, mental, and emotional strength.  We hiked twelve hours a day…I ended up getting a cold, with a cough and runny nose.  The dryness at higher elevations caused me to get a bloody nose.  Half the time spent hiking was with tissue paper stuck in my nostrils, making breathing even more difficult.  And even though I’d taken altitude sickness medication, the high altitude resulted in headache, vomiting, and diarrhea.  I was only carrying a day pack, but my shoulder and back started acting up and spasming…There were no showers or bathrooms…This entire experience was by far the hardest thing thing I had ever done in my life.  It was testing every ounce of willpower I had.  After what seemed like an eternity, we finally reached the summit just as the sun was rising.  I couldn’t believe that we had actually done it.  We were standing at the highest point in all of Africa, looking down at the clouds below us, with the sun directly in front of us, its rays welcoming us to the beginning of the new day…In that moment, I thought to myself, Anything is possible.

2. There is a time to harvest, and a time to sift:

“In the pursuit of knowledge, something is added every day.  In the pursuit of enlightenment, something is dropped every day.” – Lao-tzu

3. Great quote to live by:

“No matter what your past has been, you have a spotless future.” – Author Unknown

Hope you enjoy the book!

Book afterthought: The World is Flat by Thomas Friedman

Score: 4.5/5

I actually started this book about 3 years ago, but only recently had the discipline to finish it.  The World is Flat is a book about globalization in the 20th century – what are the significant historic events that caused it, how technology helped to level many playing fields, how companies and individuals are and should cope, and what economic and geopolitical implications it has on the world at large.

Written by Pulitzer prize winning journalist Thomas Friedman, this book is a great introduction to the understanding of globalization.  It was easy to read, and covers many areas – education, technology, politics, and economics.  Though the book is 3 years old now and some examples are not as timely, many lessons are valuable nevertheless.  Below are some of my favourite parts of the book.

1. If you are not interested in your job.  Be careful if your competitors love what they do, because “Nobody works harder at learning than a curious kid”, and when the learning is materialized, it becomes a significant force.

2. Speaking about a key cause of violence:

This humiliation is the key.  It has always been my view that terrorism is not spawned by the poverty of money.  It is spawned by the poverty of dignity.  Humiliation is the most underestimated force in international relations and in human relations.  It is when people or nations are humiliated that they really lash out and engage in extreme violence.

3. About the tech bust’s lesser known impact on India’s tech industry:

India didn’t benefit only from the dot-com boom; it benefited even more from the dot-com bust!  That is the real irony.  The boom laid the cable that connected India to the world, and the bust made the cost of using it virtually free and also vastly increased the number of American companies that would want to use that fiber-optic cable to outsource knowledge work to India.

4. Why oil dependency hinders growth in oil rich countries:

Nothing has contributed more to retarding the emergence of a democratic context in places like Venezuela, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, and Iran than the curse of oil.  As long as the monarchs and dictators who run these oil states can get rich by drilling their natural resources – as opposed to drilling the natural talents and energy of their people – they can stay in office forever.  They can use oil money to monopolize all the instruments of power – army, police, and intelligence – and never have to introduce real transparency or power sharing.  … They never have to tax their people, so the relationship between ruler and the ruled is highly distorted.  Without taxation, there is no representation.

It had been an insightful read, and I hope you find this book equally useful to you, too.

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Book Review: Chief Culture Officer

Score: 3.5/5

Summary: Author Grant McCracken argues that today’s popular culture is much more fragmented yet also more crucial to the financial well being of companies as purchasing decision processes change.  He advocates therefore, for a CCO position, whose mandate is to drive the initiative to monitor pop culture and inform product design and brand marketing.

My thoughts: Interesting book with some great insights.  I’d like it more if it were shorter.

Book Review: Four Seasons

Score: 4.5/5

I picked up this book quite a while back but finally finished it this past weekend.  Many people probably don’t know that Four Seasons is a Canadian company.  This book is an autobiography of its founder Isadore Sharp, about how he entered the hotel business as an outsider and through determination and some luck, created the well known five star hotel chain as we know it today.

This is a great book and I’ve learned lots about Mr. Sharp’s courage and commitment in excellent customer service.  I’ve enjoyed the book and hope you will, too.

Here were some of my favourite moments in the book:

About Excellence

“Excellence is often just a capacity for taking pains.”

About Courage

Not long after Sharp entered the hotel business as a building contractor, while arranging the financing of his second hotel, he realized if the hotel didn’t prove successful, he would be in debt for the rest of his life.

He went ahead, and now his chain is 150 hotels strong.

About Excellent Customer Service

A black-tie event was held at Four Seasons Chicago.  Every gentleman was wearing a black-tie except one, who complained to his wife that he looked like an idiot because she didn’t say this was a black-tie event.

A Four Seasons employee, Hans Willimann, overheard this and leaned toward the couple…

“I’m sorry,” he said, “but I couldn’t help but overhear your conversation.  I work here.  I understand your dilemma, and I think I can help.”

Hans invited the man to follow him to the uniform office.

“Khaled, this gentleman doesn’t have a tuxedo.  Can you help him?”

Khaled invited the gentleman to have a seat in his office, excused himself, changed out of the tuxedo he was wearing, put on his civilian clothes, and rushed to the laundry to press his very own tuxedo for the guest to wear.  The pants were a little bit too big, so the staff seamstress came up and fixed them, and the gentleman rejoined the party.

The next day Hans received a lengthy and effusive letter of praise from Mr. Steingraber expressing his gratitude.  The letterhead indicated that he was the chairman and CEO of a major global strategic consulting firm, A.T. Kearney.  And he felt that if his consultants had the kind of attitude that Hans and his banquet manager had demonstrated, the company could be twice their size.

Monday, 31 May 2010

Book afterthought: “The Rickover Effect” by Theodore Rockwell

Score: 4.5/5

This book is an account of Admiral Hyman Rickover’s life in the navy written by one of his trusted subordinates Mr. Theodore Rockwell.  Though not well known by many outside of the Navy/Nuclear industry, Admiral Rickover drove the development of nuclear submarines and the thus the industries from which nuclear power generation became possible.  His determination, moral values, and multi dimensional personality both inspires and puzzles me.  There are nevertheless many great lessons from him.  Below is the story that stuck out the most for me.

In a class of physics students many years ago, nuclear physics was being taught by a famous professor named Frederick Seitz.  Among this class were some navy personnel, training for the nuclear projects they are to contribute to in the future.  During class, a gray-haired gentleman kept asking some fundamental and simple questions, causing some ridicule from classmates.  Even after 2 times explaining the same concept, the gentleman still replied “I still don’t understand, professor”.  To which the professor asked “would you like me to give you extra help every afternoon”?  The gentleman replied “that would be great professor, I much appreciate it”.

When the extra help session began, the professor, the gray-haired gentleman, and many classmates, including the ones who ridiculed the gentleman, were in it.  Apparently, the gentleman wasn’t the only one that didn’t understand the material, but he was the only one who was willing to admit it.

That gentleman was Hyman Rickover, “the Father of the Nuclear Navy”.

Book afterthought: “Getting Organized In the Google Era” by Douglas C. Merrill

Score: 4/5

This book was written by the former CIO of Google, teaching people how to use various tools (like Gmail and the iPhone) and best practices (like when to use paper and when to use digital tool) to thrive in today’s information overloaded lifestyle.  I found the recommendations helpful, though probably even more so for a non-techie.  The lesson I liked the most was about filtering information (i.e. skimming):

Reading every single word in a book, article, or anything else is much more time-consuming and more difficult, at least for me, than filtering that information.  And yet, it comes with the same risk of forgetting.  So you may as well filter.  It’s easier to do, and it’s easier on your brain – and you may need that extra brainpower later.

There will still be material that I read every single word for (like personal letters), but this lesson from the book reminded me that the risk of losing important info is generally no greater than the risk of forgetfulness, and that I should have confidence I will catch most of the goodness in the material by my skimming.  It’ll also help me remember better that which is worth remembering.

Book afterthought for “Linchpin” by Seth Godin

Score: 3/5

This book describes the characteristics of an indispensable individual in an organization.  No specific actions were outlined.  Rather, a set of principles and anecdotes were illustrate the point, which I liked.  Though an interesting read, I do find the book a bit repetitive.  The following is the one story that stuck out the most from the book:

Forty years ago, Richard Branson, who ultimately founded Virgin Air, found himself in a similar situation in an airport in the Caribbean.  They had just canceled his flight, the only flight that day.  Instead of freaking out about how essential the flight was, how badly his day was ruined, how his entire career was now in jeopardy, the young Branson walked across the airport to the charter desk and inquired about the cost of chartering a flight out of Puerto Rico.

Then he borrowed a portable blackboard and wrote, “Seats to Virgin Islands, $39.”  He went back to his gate, sold enough seats to his fellow passengers to completely cover his costs, and made it home on time.  Not to mention planting the seeds for the airline he’d start decades later.  Sounds like the kind of person you’d like to hire.

Sunday, 23 May 2010

Video: Interview with Niall Ferguson, author of “The Ascent of Money”

The book “The Ascent of Money” is a general history about modern finance written by Harvard professor Niall Ferguson.  Here’s an hour interview with him:

Sunday, 16 May 2010

Video: (documentary) How Britain made the modern world

This documentary series consists of 6 episodes, each split into 5 youtube videos.  It’s a good intro to Britain’s modern history.  You can also find the book counterpart on Amazon.

Here’s the first part from the first episode (it seemed to have some issue for me, but the second part onward seemed find):

Monday, 15 March 2010

Video: James Cameron TED Talk

James Cameron talks about curiosity, imagination, taking risks, and leadership.

Sunday, 28 February 2010

Video: NHK program about the next generation bullet trains

Very interesting to see the how considerations like weight, noise, and vibration, are put into designing the new bullet trains.


Video 1 of 7:

Video 2 of 7:

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Why natural interface excites me

What do you think about when the word “Natural Interface” comes up?  If you were like me, things like the iPhone touch interface, the Microsoft Surface, and the tablet PCs would immediately come up.  When a new paradigm of interaction, like touch, comes on the scene, some would wonder about its usefulness beyond the cool factor. I wish to address part of that question below.

Craig Mundie, Microsoft's Chief Research and Strategy Officer, recently demonstrated the interaction paradigm of 3D gestures in one of Microsoft's research projects. My favourite part was how he manipulated the design of a turbine blade using gestures and be presented with the outcome in terms of wind flow on a colour scale. By using gestures to manipulate design this way, engineers can avoid a large part of perturbing and experimenting with various parametric equations. The results are immediate, and changes can be made on the spot. This speeds up the design process, which has a direct economic impact. On the industry level, it enables larger problems to be solved more quickly.

Consider yet another scenario - robotic surgery. To operate with ever greater precision and effectiveness, surgeons need the help of various medical equipments and robotic devices that help them to see and operate better. Robotic arms that are small, flexible, and very "natural" to use for surgeons will allow for ever more complex surgeries to be done in minimally invasive manner. This is very important because size of cuts has an big impact on the patient's quality of life after surgery. Here again having an interface very natural to use makes a difference.

Let's consider the broader concept of natural interface. To me, technologies are tools, and making interfaces more natural is about accessibility - making those tools accessible/useful to a larger audience and support innovation in their respective problem domains so they enhance human abilities rather than impede it. How different would lives be if actuaries had to interact with their data through switches rather than keyboard/mouse/monitor/GUI? The impact is immense.

More importantly, on top of supporting people within their problem domains, if interface designers can find a low enough common denominator in interaction paradigm, people from across disciplines can collaborate much more effectively. What if auto designers can manipulate their design and immediately show engineers the impact of the change in a way engineers can understand and action on? What if the data was shown to designers in a way that they can understand engineers' perspective, too? Better designs faster is my guess.

What about being able to easily visualize and manipulate the mountain of data collected to enable high level decision makers to get a good picture of their organization and effect change more successfully. I think we are just seeing the beginning of such initiatives. Applying this level of accessibility to the entire industry or society and the effect is profound and full of possibilities.

No pressure, interface designers. :)

Saturday, 27 February 2010

Parable of the financial crisis by Charlie Munger

Very well written article summarizing the financial crisis.  Thanks to my friend Seungchan for sharing this article with me.

Subscribing to email notification for my blog

I have just added a new widget in this blog to allow email notification on new blog posts. If you would like to be notified by email whenever a new post is available on my blog, please type your email in the text box under "Subscribe via email" and click the “Subscribe” button. You’ll be sent a verification email. Just follow the activation link and you are all set!

I hope this makes it easier to keep track of my blog. :)

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Google and Railway companies

A rough thought…

I like trains, and often thought the railway industry has many similarities to the telecom industry.  Both industries are about transporting stuff, just that one is for physical goods, and the other digital goods.

Watching a documentary about railway, I learned this fun fact.  In Japan, railway networks are more developed and the industry is full of private railway companies.  Some (not sure how many) railway companies run their passenger rail business at a loss consistently.  But how do they survive?  It turns out, they cross subsidize.  By owning both the railway and the department stores around its stations, they use the profits from those stores to fund the railway business.  The railway subsidiary continuously improves their ride experience to try to drive more traffic to the department stores.

Could something similar to this happen in the telecom/internet industries?  If we consider Google and other expensive web properties to be the department stores, and the railways the internet’s infrastructure (in the sense of browsers/OS, and the telecom infrastructure), could it make sense that companies like Google will eventually want to provide this infrastructure directly to consumers to provide a better surfing/browsing experience in hopes of driving more traffic and value for their search/ads business?  What are the factors that would make this proposition of directly controlling the infrastructure more compelling, if at all?  Perhaps Google will consider this approach if it find the added benefit of delivering their ideal surfing experience outweighs the cost of setting it up.  For example, when the building out their own browsers and OS helps them to understand the users to target their ads and searches much more and help them be way more profitable.  Google came up with the Chrome OS and browser so far, and now are branching into the mobile software space.  I wonder what is in store next.

Going back to the Japanese railway example, Japan’s national railway company (the crown corporation) couldn’t compete with the private ones because it was prohibited as a public company to operate in the same manner.  If one day Google does provide consumers its own infrastructure, both on the software and hardware level, it’ll be an interesting thing to watch.

Thoughts and comments are welcome!

Sunday, 14 February 2010

How does technology distract us?

I was thinking about this a little, about how technology has an impact on the way we think.  Here are my thoughts.

It wasn't too long ago when I was in high school in Taiwan and all you need was a textbook.  You know that if you study the textbook well a grade of A would be guaranteed.  Everything you needed was in that one nice package.  No worrying about what information you have missed and trying to hunt down the right information.

This is quite different today.  We now live in a stream of information (I got this notion from Nova Spivack, CEO of Radar Networks).  Information is updated all the time, and often it is our job to deal with the ambiguity and diversity of data that is out there.  The low cost of swinging from one piece of information (in the case of internet, just switching to pages) is lower than ever before, urging us to move on whenever our judgment call deems a page not worthwhile.

I think this "background processing", the need to feel we are responsible for finding the right information in what seems like an unending pool of data at least contributes to the feeling of information overload.  It's a bit like gambling.  We are not sure of the outcome, and thus the effect is magnified.  The ambiguity about whether we have the complete picture and the fear that maybe one thing out there could completely change the basis for our research, drives us crazy.

Another fact I think makes us information addicts that check emails all the time is the fact that it is asynchronous.  The non-real time nature of tools like email and voice mail have made group collaboration much more efficient, but precisely for this reason, the recipient of this information can often get overwhelmed, because the sender does not need consent from the recipient.  For example, if people had to always use phone calls to conduct business rather than using email, there won't be "left over" calls at the end of the day because when you're on one call, someone else has to wait for you to finish before speaking to you on the phone.  With emails, it is up to you to just send the info and let the receiver deal with it.  This makes for the volume of incoming data more volatile with emails, and since habits have momentum, when the volume of email is low, we crave for it.

All this comes down to the question of "what does information mean to you".  Of course, if none of us deem the information valid or useful, no information overflow would occur.  However, it is useful to address this issue for a growing number of people who find information to be an indispensable part of their work life well being and for sustainable progress as a society.  I wonder what are the technologies that will be required to address this.  Some sort of intelligent agent perhaps?  Habit change is definitely needed, but how?  Just one of my many thoughts.  :)

How does technology distract you?

Friday, 12 February 2010

Thoughts on the iPad

On January 27, Apple announced the iPad, their first tablet device. It is a very interesting product in many respects IMO, so I have gathered my thoughts below. Enjoy!

Form Factor

The iPad is a tablet and not a clam shell device, users will most likely use it either on a stand or be holding it with one or two hands. This makes it ideally suited for use while standing and in confined spaces. It also feels more "intimate".

Size wise, the iPad is a bit bigger diagonally than a regular hard back book, about the thickness of 2 pencils stacked up, and weighs 1.5 pounds. It is very mobile. I can see users carrying it around the house more than they do a laptop.

Casual Computing

15 years ago, when you want to check your email, you would walk up to your Pentium I PC, turn it on, wait forever for the start up, dial a phone number to connect to the internet, turn on your email client, and click "Send and Receive", and wait some more for your messages to download. Today, we have our Blackberries/iPhones that notify us when a mail comes in. Within seconds we are reading and replying to it, and many managers today can't imagine their life without mobile email, and nothing is stopping email from being the basic feature of every phone in the future.

This concept of a technology being completely woven into and adapted to a user's lifestyle (it disappears) is what I think of as "Casual Computing". (I am not sure if Steve Jobs agree though. :) ) Using the email example above, the instant on, always connected, and mobile characteristics of a cell phone makes email disappear and we start to use it very casually - anytime, anywhere. Compared to 15 years ago, emails these days are quite "casual".

Of the many interesting features about the iPad, this is the most important thing for me - it has the potential to make many applications more casual than before, and introduce a new set of behaviours in using computers. Purchasing decisions are often based on impulses. How many times have you thought about buying something at one moment and not long after decided you weren't going through with it? What if the ability to execute the purchase was readily available then? Many people would probably have gone through with it.

The iPad, with its current screen real estate, makes browsing and selecting products pretty pleasant. Combined with its mobility, connectedness, and instant-on feature, I suspect consumers would perceive and use the iPad as a large iPhone in app usage. If the iPhone user behaviour is any indication, then we can expect huge amounts of micro-transactions of many kinds and the user data gathered to be more real-time than before. The two areas that I'm most excited about on the iPad are in books and gaming.

Book Reading

I love to read, and I love paper. I've been checking out various e-readers and the iPad seems the most attractive to me thus far, though it's more than an e-reader. It has a colour display large enough to feel "intimate" with the book, allows web browsing, and refreshes pages quickly when page turning and can play videos.

iPad's desktop like display in my opinion opens up a lot of possibilities in book reading. Videos and other interactive features not possible with the Amazon Kindle can now be embedded in books. Think about a music history textbook that has video/audio of the music pieces being taught, or any book with interviews with the author, or instruction manuals that have videos to teach you how to assemble a piece of furniture. Videos will greatly enhance reading in these areas.

I think the iPad may also make book reading more social - allowing more interaction with the author and other readers in the community. Readers may participate more in the making of future books with the author, too.


I am not a big fan of gaming, however, I can see the iPad bringing new audiences like what Wii did. Social games on Facebook like FarmVille have become very successful recently, and it appealed to many people who previously did not consider playing games on a PC. iPad is very suited for games (like FarmVille) that require frequent status checking, some degree of interaction between other players and the player’s properties. Imho the iPad addresses the needs of this market and the audiences in it, particularly middle age women.

If the iPad is coupled with a very frictionless way to buy/sell virtual goods I think there is a tremendous commercial opportunity.

Concluding thoughts

I think the iPad is a device with a lot of potential. The challenge is to convince the consumers that it’s a device way more intimate than a PC, and with a much better visual experience than a phone. I expect the user adoption would be slow at first, starting with frequent travelers and e-reader buyers. Interesting times indeed!

I welcome your comments. :)