Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Dead or Alive - or Dead on Arrival

Tom Clancy
Usually I write about books that I've liked.  So why am I writing about Dead or Alive, a book I hated?  Because it represents an interesting study in how you can build a business and a brand through writing.

It's ironic to write about brands and authors in the same breath.  But it's appropriate in talking about Tom Clancy whose name is clearly a brand.  I decided to explore this brand after reading his latest novel Dead or Alive (and I use the adjective his loosely).  Clancy may have started as an author but he is now a successful businessman providing a series of consumer products based on an established platform - his popular characters Jack Ryan and John Clark, international backdrops, lots or murder and mayhem and a hefty dollop of military hardware information.

A company can launch an initial successful product and follow it up with multiple variants or offshoots of the original, inducing past consumers to continue purchasing the product line and brand - think software upgrades.  A company can also license their brand for use on products made completely by some other company - think flashlights with Disney characters on them.

Clancy has used those business principles to leverage the success of The Hunt for Red October with a series of derivative novels.  Recycling characters and utilizing the same general style and structure increase productivity and reinforce the brand - think 'core competency' for a company.  Many of his works appear to be co-written with other authors, but he has since acknowledged that he puts his name on books and movie scripts ghost-written by others and on video games where he doesn't participate in the creation.  In other words, he licenses his brand promiscuously. 

This mass market consumer products company called Clancy has been a rousing financial success.   in 1997, his Wikipedia entry claims that he signed a book deal worth $50M for two new books, followed by a second agreement for $25M for a four-year book/multimedia deal.   And over a decade later, there's still a flood of new 'Clancy' novels.  Great business model with high revenue and low overhead.

I remember being totally engrossed in The Hunt for Red October when I read it years ago.  The suspense built to a great climax.  Although the novel was somewhat far-fetched, it was indeed based on a couple of incidents with Russian submarines that were conflated into one story line.  And I loved the movie too. 

The plot of this book was disjointed and less believable than most thrillers.  There are so many subplots going on, there was no sense of inevitability driving to a major climax.  Moreover, the plot is interspersed with rants about how the government is ruining the country through lack of support of intelligence agencies while they spend money and time on such misguided programs as health care.  In Clancy's right-wing opinion, support for intelligence agencies should be unequivocal, untainted by any concern about human rights.  In recruiting for the private clandestine organization where Jack Ryan Jr., John Clark and others work, a major hiring criterion is that you have committed murder of nasty people without feeling remorse.  Clancy doesn't advocate taking prisoners in any situation!

If you're looking for something to while away the time and can stick it to the end (as I did because I have a congenital disability - I can't stop reading a book until I get to the end), you get quantity if not quality from Dead or Alive.  Indeed price/page is about the only redeeming quality of this book.

Well, Ive just read Dead or Alive, Clancy's latest. $/page

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Ai Weiwei at TED

It's been a while since I've written about talks at this year's TED conference, the main focus of this blog over the years.  I hope to correct that in the coming weeks.

Today, I got prompted to restart.  It was reported that Ai Weiwei, the Chinese artist and activist, has been released from prison, essentially on the Chinese equivalent of bail. 

Weiwei had secretly put together a video specifically for TED.  Weiwei told us of the persecution he faced in China for speaking out against the government: you can't search his name on search engines in China, his blog is censored, his studio was bulldozed, and he is under constant surveillance.  The surveillance looked relatively benign, at least during the filming, when Weiwei chatted with some of his followers.  However, he had been beaten in a previous arrest. 

One of Weiwei's causes was the investigation of the student casualties in the 2009 earthquake, and this investigation has been heartily rebuffed by the government.  There have been rumours that the students who died because schools had been flimsily built.

Weiwei is impressive for his courage in standing up to Chinese authorities.  However, I have to say this wasn't one of the best talks at TED, as TED talks go.  Better to read more about Weiwei than to listen to his TED talk.

Monday, June 20, 2011

ING Direct Cafe: A Breath of Fresh Air

How often do you sit around with friends, lamenting ignorant, disinterested service reps, punitive service conditions, stranglehold contracts, confusing interfaces, or misleading entry prices with surprise surcharges?  If you're like me, it makes you appreciate those companies that deal with you competently, fairly and transparently.  I can get excited about companies as diverse as the company that so smoothly rents out our cottage or the arborists who took down our diseased tree so proficiently.

But one company consistently blows me away and that's ING Direct Bank*.  Their products are simple and work as advertised.  The web site is intuitive and easy to navigate.  Their communications are clear and understandable.  Their client reps know their stuff and are unfailingly pleasant.  (In fact, at the 2011 Contact Center World North American Finals in May, they won best mid-sized contact centre in North America).  As an innovation specialist, I respect their passion to change the way banking is done: without traditional branches, they deliver superb products over the Internet and the phone.

ING Direct has now found a new way to surprise and delight me as a customer - the new ING Direct cafe in downtown Toronto.  They've transformed a heritage building at 221 Yonge with heritage brick walls, and lots of natural wood and light, and there's only one word for the result: gorgeous.  It's a place where ING Direct wants to interact their customers in a new way, to be a vibrant part of the Toronto community, and to manifest their commitment to sustainability.

Main floor of the ING Direct Toronto Cafe
 As you can see, the main floor of the ING Direct Cafe really has a cafe, where you can make your own coffee from fair trade coffee from Haiti in a fancy machine, or, if like me you don't drink coffee, you can juice your own oranges in an equally fancy juicer or make some tea.  The coffee and juice, and organic pastries, are not free, and neither are the other 'orange' ING items; all the profits are donated to charity.  There's free WiFi (of course), and a bank of lovely iPads to try out ING's industry-leading mobile apps.  The ING staff are there to answer your questions, not to pitch ING products.  Or you can just gravitate to the comfortable seating to just hang out in this space and read some magazines, as I saw folks doing the day I was there.

On the main floor ING features companies whose principles coincide with ING's, dubbed Saver's Friends.  There was bike from Curbside Cycle on display the day I was there.  The $650 bike was being sold for $400 - again with all the money being used to build cycling education and mechanics facilities in St. Jamestown as well as purchsing bicycle helmets and locks for kids.  The bright orange bike embodied many messages - saving your money, saving the environment, community partnerships, and of course the link with the Netherlands famous for biking (ING's parent is Dutch and the bike was the Batavus brand from the Netherlands).

ING Direct Cafe's Green Wall
As you walk up to the second story, you pass by the gorgeous Green Wall as you enter the co-working space.  (See this article in Globe and Mail for an interesting perspective on the growing trend toward co-working). A modest working area, access to great meeting rooms and top-of-the-line technology - great big LED screens, facilities for webcasting, digital whiteboards - everything an independent entrepreneur would dream of, all available for a modest fee (also donated to charity).  The informal 40-person meeting room can be booked free by nonprofit or community groups and is already becoming a favourite venue for many.

The third floor is a satellite office for ING Direct staff - a place of experimentation and innovation.  It's a coveted place for ING employees to work.  Once you've experienced this fresh and friendly space, it might just become a coveted space for you too.

* full disclosure:  I am on the board of ING Direct Bank.  However I was a delighted customer long before I was a director, and this post is written form the point of view of a customer.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Nudging Public Policy

Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness, a book by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, argues that behavioural economics can help improve public policy. It's very persuasive about the value of 'nudging' people toward better decisions in their own interests, rather than trying to educate them or legislate them into those better decisions.   

In countries where you have to check off a box to be an organ donor, the overwhelming majority do not agree to donate their organs.  If you have to check off a box not to be an organ donor, the overwhelming majority agree to donate their organs.  You're taking a position on the question just by how you pose it.  So why not choose the way that will incline people to make the best choices for themselves and society?  In other words, make public policy that leverages on the natural behaviour of people rather than fighting against it.

Sunstein is working with the Obama administration to infuse their regulatory policy with these ideas.  A recent interview with Thaler in The McKinsey Quarterly publication described his contributions in the UK's so-called Nudge Unit.  This rather long quote comes in the preview of that article: 

Richard Thaler is the rare academic whose ideas are being translated directly into action. Since last year, the University of Chicago professor has been advising the “Nudge Unit,” established by the government of the United Kingdom to create policies that will enhance the public welfare by helping citizens make better choices. . . . Policy makers can nudge people to save more, invest better, consume more intelligently, use less energy, and live healthier lives, Thaler and Sunstein argue, through greater sensitivity to human tendencies such as “anchoring” on an initial value, using “mental accounting” to compartmentalize different categories of expenditures, and being biased toward the status quo.

It's worth reading the whole article.  Thaler says that policy makers in the UK have been very open to suggestions from the unit.

In their book, Thaler and Sunstein called this approach libertarian paternalism, and some people detest such paternalism (see  this article in The Telegraph.)  What do you think?

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Light Summer Reading

Just finished a delightful mystery, very suitable for summer reading on the deck.  Still Life by Louise Penny is a mystery set in Quebec's Eastern Townships.  It's a quick, light read, and I really warmed to Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of Surete Quebec. 

This book won several awards for best first mystery book, and Penny has written several more Gamache mysteries. She's certainly on my future reading list.

Penny is a former CBC journalist who now lives in 'a small town outside Montreal near the US border', in other words, a town very similar to Three Pines, the site of this mystery.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

James Church's North Korea

A while ago I wrote a a post about James Church's novel  A Corpse in the Koryo.  Set in North Korea, Church's novels feature the dedicated Inspector O.  O is apolitical in a sea of back-stabbing politics.  O is shielded by his grandfather's reputation, a famous North Korean revolutionary, but he's always hovering at the edge of that protective shield.   

Although Inspector O is an interesting, multifaceted character, to me the key protagonist is North Korea itself.  In this surreal society, cases aren't cases, and mysteries aren't meant to be unravelled.  Everyone is paranoid, society is deprived, and Inspector O never has the tools to solve the mysteries presented to him.  That doesn't matter too much since his superiors usually want the mysteries buried rather than solved.  O spends most of his time trying to decipher the dangerous, ever-shifting power balance within the police department, and keeping himself safe from internal threats while he doggedly seeks the truth. 

Besides being a respected revolutionary, O's grandfather was a woodworker, with a passion and sensitivity for wood.  O has inherited this harmony with wood, and carries around bits of wood in his pocket, like worry beads to be rubbed in times of trouble.  Depending on the trouble, he matches the wood to the occasion.  His grandfather taught him that different woods have different personalities.  For instance chestnut is 'touchy and ill-tempered...but... beautiful, lustrous, hard, calm in the storm.'  

The Man with the Baltic Stare is my favourite book so far.  O comes out of 'retirement' (or is it banishment?) from his remote hilltop cabin to be thrown into baffling swirls of intrigue in Pyongyang, as everyone prepares for the rumoured reunification of North and South Korea. When my husband and I toured Korea, we met people who felt strongly on both sides of that question.  Our main guide considered reunification as a cultural necessity, and he was very moved when we visited the demilitarization zone.  Another guide in the city took the pragmatic view that reviving the North would swamp South Korea and send it reeling back into poverty.  There was an interesting article in The Economist some month ago, comparing the situation of the two Koreas with that of the two Germanys before reunification.  This chart was telling:

 There are proportionately more people in North Korea compared to South Korea than there were in East Germany compared to West Germany, and the difference economically is staggering compared to the differences between East and West Germany.  This book deftly describes the other nations with vested interests in the country after reunification.

Author James Church is a 'former Western intelligence officer with decades of experience in Asia'.  I haven't been able to find detailed biographical information about him, but an entry in Wikipedia states that he was over 60 in 2009.  I hope he's still writing books, because I am hungry for more Inspector O. 

Friday, June 10, 2011


Curiosity is Joan Thomas' fascinating fictionalized account of the life of early 19th Century British paleontologist Mary Anning .  Have you heard of her?  Probably not.  But in 2010 she was named by the Royal Society as one of the ten British women who have most influenced the history of science!

Anning's is a sad story of an extremely bright and focused person, held back by gender and social class.  The upper class scientists of the day alternated between brazenly appropriating her work, and vehemently denying that her finds were authentic.  She was not allowed to become a member of the Royal Society that would name her as so influential. 

Mary Anning
Extremely poor and self-educated but for learning to read over a few months in Sunday school, Anning had an instinct for finding fossils in the layered shale of the Dorset coast.  Not only did she collect these fossils in all seasons and with great hardship, she was the the expert in identifying them, and she was painstaking in her documentation of them.

Anning supported herself (barely) by selling her small fossil finds as curiosites at an open-air table that met the coaches bringing tourists to Lyme Regis.  She sold her large discoveries, such as the first Ichthyosaurus ever found, to rich collectors.  And guess what - in the early annals of paleontology, those finds were credited to the men who purchased them not to Anning who found and identified them.

The world was bubbling with new ideas at the time.  Lyell was revolutionizing geology by arguing that the earth changed over long periods of time.  Lamarck was arguing for the evolution of species (although he didn't have the missing link of genetics).  And Darwin was soon to publish his theories.  

However, the scientific establishment in England hadn't adopted these ideas yet, and they were still trying to fit Anning's discoveries into a narrow interpretation of the Bible: the earth was only 6,000 years old and species were created once by God and never changed.  So, sometimes rather than claiming her finds for their own, they would instead publish attacks on their authenticity.  As Henry de la Beche, Mary's longtime friend and colleague, puts it, "Our efforts are more and more contorted, to make the evidence of nature fit with a few cryptic lines of Scripture".

Mary never married.  In the book, she and de la Beche are  not just colleagues but friends and even lovers, but social conventions would never allow them to be together.  Anning collected fossils all her life, and lived in extreme poverty the whole time.  When she was nearly destitute, one of the collectors who had bought many fossils from her, put his entire collection up for auction and gave the money to Anning, about the only favour Anning ever received from anyone in the book.  

Mary Anning in her top hat
As she grew older, Mary adopted more eccentric dress, wearing a top hat to the shore.  In another quote from Henry de la Beche, "It's not the top hat that accounts for our discomfort with Mary Anning.  It is Mary Anning's superior knowledge in all subjects related to her field.  It is her refusal to pander to male vanity and pretend that the gentlemen with whom she discources have come to this knowledge before her."

British women haven't fared well in getting credit for their work.  Anning is one of the earliest women in the Royal Society's list.   Rosalind Franklin is the second last.  Many think she should have shared the Nobel prize for the discovery of DNA; without Franklin's meticulous radiography, the discovery would never have been made.  

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Latest TED Book Club Selections

Today, I received the latest TED Book Club selections.  People have told me they find these recommendations valuable, so I'll give the description of these books as provided in the TED accompanying letter.  

It Happened on the Way to War: A Marine's Path to Peace
This book, written by a TED Fellow Rye Barcott, is a moving memoir that chronicles the period of his life as a Marine deployed in Africa and the Middle East while establishing a youth-focused peacekeeping NGO, Carolina for Kibera in Kenya.

Spark: How Creativity Works, Inside the Minds of America's Greatest Writers, Filmmakers, Musicians & Artists
In this book, Julie Burstein selects a handful of creative geniuses who have graced the Studio 360 stage - a talk radio show - and takes you on an intimate voyage into their minds.  No topic is left unearthed as you'll discover what inspires them - their struggles and triumphs, the wonders of childhood, and the ups and downs of relationships, all while helping you spark the creative genius that lives in you.

In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works and Shapes Our Lives
WIRED journalist, TEDster, and best-selling author Stephen Levy gives us the most penetrating behind-the-scenes portrait yet of the force of nature that is Google.  Levy chronicles the growth of the company from inception to present day.  This book will not only help you understand the ideology that makes Google such a force in today's world but also gives an intimate look into the personalities of its founders.

The Philosophical Breakfast Club: Four Remarkable Friends Who Transformed Science and Changed the World
Laura Snyder transports the reader to the 1800s, into the lives of William Whewell, Charles Babbage, John Herschel and Richard Jones - four friends who left their mark on the way science is conducted and whose legacy persists to this day.  This fascinating period gave birth to scientific method, among other things.  Outside of this past half century, no other period in history witnessed such great scientific breakthroughs.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Kobo versus Kindle

In our household, we have both a Kindle and a Kobo.  I thought some people might be interested in a comparison.  

In short, the Kindle behaves as if Apple had designed it, while the Kobo behaves as if Microsoft designed it.  The Kobo is both slower and clumsier.  Its big advantage is that you can download books from the library, if they have digital editions.

For those who are interested, I've provided a more detailed comparison below.  It's not intended to be comprehensive, just my personal reaction to the two devices.

Physical Attributes
The screen size is exactly the same on both devices, but overall the Kindle is slightly larger and heavier because of its keyboard.  So the Kobo wins in being slighting lighter.

Reading Books
Both screens are easy on the eyes.   No backlighting so they don't feel like computers.  Good contrast.

Both keep track of where you left off reading and return you to that spot.  However, you can't renew a library book (at least in Toronto), so if you take it out again to finish reading it, there's no record of where you left off.  (You can go to the Table of Contents and start at a particular chapter if you remember that.)

It's nice that the Kindle allows you to turn the page with either a right-side or a left-side button.  Also, on our Kindle, one of the buttons is very quiet (nice if you read in a shared bed!), while the Kobo's only button makes a loud clicking noise.

On both the Kobo and the Kindle you can easily look up a word.  This is marvellously easy on the Kindle - you just highlight the word in question.  On the Kobo it takes a few clicks.  I haven't actually tried this yet, because you can't look up words on borrowed books which is all that's loaded on our Kobo so far.

The Kindle allows to highlight sections and place a bookmark both of which are handy features.  Being able to search for any word in a book is another helpful feature of the Kindle - say you're reading a book like Anna Karenina and you want to refer back to when one of the characters was introduced.  Presto, it's easy.

Getting Books
Well, nothing could be simpler than the Kindle.  As long as you're in cell phone range, you just type in the name of the book, using the keyboard below the screen.  One click buys it and it's almost instantly available to read.  If you change your mind within 24 hours, you can reverse the purchase.  And if you accidentally delete a book from the Kindle, Amazon still knows you've bought it and you can download it again. 

So far, I've only downloaded books to the Kobo from the library (yippee - free!), a two-step process that starts on the computer.  First you download the book to the Adobe Digital Editions library (which you had to download first).  When you attach your Kobo, the book automatically downloads.  After safely disconnecting, the Kobo takes a while to process the downloaded book.  I was able to stumble in doing this process a couple of times, still not sure how.  You can also download books from a store this way, or download directly to the Kobo if you have WiFi.

As I've mentioned, you can download books from the library - but precious few of the ones I've looked for are held by the Toronto Public Library.  Since Toronto has the largest urban library system  in North America (99 branches compared to New York's 86 for instance) and the busiest urban library in the world, I doubt if a user would fare better at other public libraries.

Miscellaneous Factors

Everything is slooooow on the Kobo compared to the Kindle.  This is not noticeable when turning a page, but at all other times.  For instance, once you've selected a book to read, instead of Kindle's almost instant display, the Kobo tells you it's loading.........

I like the fact that the Kindle always displays how much battery is left; on the Kobo, it's a couple of clicks to find that out.  The Kindle comes with a dual charger (either USB on your computer or in regular plug outlet), whereas the Kobo only comes with USB charger (don't know yet whether I can use the Kindle USB adapter to plug the Kobo into an outlet.

We found out an interesting thing about borrowed library books.  At Toronto Public Library they have a 3-week loan period and they cannot be renewed.  However, it's Adobe Digital Editions that keeps track of the expiry date, so if you don't activate the Kobo on your computer, then you can keep reading for as long as you want.

P.S.  If you're thinking of buying the Kobo Vox instead, read my review of that device here.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

The Housekeeper and The Professor

In Yoko Ogawa's short, quiet, enchanting novel The Housekeeper and the Professor, we meet, not surprisingly, a housekeeper and a professor.  

Brain-damaged after a car accident, the professor can only remember 80 minutes of new memories.  He pins notes all over his clothes to remember important things, one of which is a prominent announcement about his disability.  Before his injury, the professor taught mathematics and he continues to revel in it, especially number theory.  He solves published puzzles in magazines for prize money to supplement his income.  He relates everything in the real world to the elegance of number theory.

The housekeeper, the narrator, is a single mum sent out by her agency to keep the professor's dilapidated house.  A crude picture of her soon joins the slips of paper pinned to the professor's clothes so he can remember her each morning.  

Personal relationships are not the professor's forte (who could build a relationship only remembering 80 minutes?).  However, when he asks the housekeeper her birthday and she responds  February 2 - 220 - he announces that is an amicable number with 284.  (Amicable numbers are related in that the sum of the divisors of each number is equal to the other number.)  Already the housekeeper is a friend to this reclusive man.  

When the professor discovers the housekeeper has a son at home waiting for her after school, he insists that the son should come to his house.  He names him Root because his hair style reminds him of a square root symbol, and soon forms a tender attachment to the son.

Both the son and the housekeeper awaken to the beauty and elegance of numbers under the professor's tutelage and encouragement.  We see the unschooled housekeeper spend weeks of research trying to solve a problem he sets and share her exhilaration when she cracks it.

Along the way, the reader learns quite a bit about number theory.  For me, it reminded me of the fascination I had for number theory when I was taking my math degrees and it completely escapes me why I didn't take any number theory courses at the time.

Ogawa won the Yomiuri Prize for this novel and it has been made into a film.  She has written many other novels, and this one certainly tempts me to read others.