50 Book Challenge

[via McGee] David Harris writes about the 50 book challenge: “The idea is to read 50 books in a year and, in some versions, blog about them.”

Interesting. I was thinking a few days ago that I needed to set up a discipline of reading something different and educating myself via a few books for 1-1.5 hours a day. I identified a few areas in which I need to learn more and starting books (and guides):

– Psychology: Influence by Cialdini
– Economics and Finance: Samuelson and Raghuram Rajan
– Marketing: Kotler
– History: Jared Diamond and David Landes
– Management: Magretta’s What Management Is

Its almost like doing a semester of learning in school…in this one has to pick the right teachers. Maybe I should take up the challenge…

In case you decide to do so too, David has some suggestions:

1) Don’t read to hit the target: Reading just to hit a target is silly. However, reading to hit a target is a very useful excuse to have when your life is busy, you generally want to get through some decent reading, but the rest of life is dragging you away. In other words, in the absence of good time management, the 50 book challenge could be a worthwhile approach.

2) No filler: This is a really a corollary to rule 1. There shouldn’t be any books on the list that are merely there to increase your count. You should want to read the books, independently of the challenge existing.

3) Re-reads can count (sometimes): Re-reading a book doesn’t count if it is done to add something to your count quickly. However, there are plenty of books that are worth re-reading and they should count. Roughly speaking, it should count if a) you haven’t read it for a long time, b) you can’t remember much about it, or c) it’s a book that you get more out of on each re-reading.

4) No genre domination: The list should be somewhat diverse. Of course, the rules shouldn’t prescribe or proscribe particular books but it seems sensible that you shouldn’t be able to fill your list with trashy sci-fi or fantasy. Good sci-fi or fantasy belongs on the list but you won’t find 50 good titles anyway.

5) No planning: You shouldn’t plan the list beforehand. You can have some general guidelines that satisfy your personal desires but there should be enough flexibility to read new releases, or to cover a new interest, or follow up on something inspired by a title you just read.

6) Ignore the rules: You should not pay attention to any of the rules. After all, this is really about reading for enjoyment, so read whatever the hell you want. Keeping a list can be useful if you have a terrible memory (like me) or you just want to share your reading experience – but it shouldn’t be about the list.

Wired on Indian Outsourcing

Wired (Daniel Pink) describes how “India became the capital of the computing revolution”:

What begins to seep through their well-tiled arguments about quality, efficiency, and optimization is a view that Americans, who have long celebrated the sweetness of dynamic capitalism, must get used to the concept that it works for non-Americans, too. Programming jobs have delivered a nice upper-middle-class lifestyle to the people in this room [in India]. They own apartments. They drive new cars. They surf the Internet and watch American television and sip cappuccinos. Isn’t the emergence of a vibrant middle class in an otherwise poor country a spectacular achievement, the very confirmation of the wonders of globalization – not to mention a new market for American goods and services? And if this transition pinches a little, aren’t Americans being a tad hypocritical by whining about it? After all, where is it written that IT jobs somehow belong to Americans – and that any non-American who does such work is stealing the job from its rightful owner?

A century ago, 40 percent of Americans worked on farms. Today, the farm sector employs about 3 percent of our workforce. But our agriculture economy still outproduces all but two countries. Fifty years ago, most of the US labor force worked in factories. Today, only about 14 percent is in manufacturing. But we’ve still got the largest manufacturing economy in the world – worth about $1.9 trillion in 2002. We’ve seen this movie before – and it’s always had a happy ending. The only difference this time is that the protagonists are forging pixels instead of steel. And accountants, financial analysts, and other number crunchers, prepare for your close-up. Your jobs are next. After all, to export sneakers or sweatshirts, companies need an intercontinental supply chain. To export software or spreadsheets, somebody just needs to hit Return.

What makes this latest upheaval so disorienting for Americans is its speed. Agriculture jobs provided decent livelihoods for at least 80 years before the rules changed and working in the factory became the norm. Those industrial jobs endured for some 40 years before the twin pressures of cheap competition overseas and labor-saving automation at home rewrote the rules again. IT jobs – the kind of high-skill knowledge work that was supposed to be our future – are facing the same sort of realignment after only 20 years or so. The upheaval is occurring not across generations, but within individual careers. The rules are being rewritten while people are still playing the game. And that seems unjust.

As I meet programmers and executives, I hear lots of talk about quality and focus and ISO and CMM certifications and getting the details right. But never – not once – does anybody mention innovation, creativity, or changing the world. Again, it reminds me of Japan in the ’80s – dedicated to continuous improvement but often at the expense of bolder leaps of possibility.

And therein lies the opportunity for Americans. It’s inevitable that certain things – fabrication, maintenance, testing, upgrades, and other routine knowledge work – will be done overseas. But that leaves plenty for us to do. After all, before these Indian programmers have something to fabricate, maintain, test, or upgrade, that something first must be imagined and invented. And these creations must be explained to customers and marketed to suppliers and entered into the swirl of commerce in a fashion that people notice, all of which require aptitudes that are more difficult to outsource – imagination, empathy, and the ability to forge relationships. After a week in India, it seems clear that the white-collar jobs with any lasting potential in the US won’t be classically high tech. Instead, they’ll be high concept and high touch.

Adds Dana Blankenhorn:

Programming is rapidly being split into two separate disciplines. One is coding. The other is developing, by which I mean conceiving and designing new jobs that software might do.

Development, as opposed to programming, is a job of the imagination. It’s like the writing I am doing now. It is not a job that has a “price” or “value” on it. No Indian has my mind, nor my imagination, nor yours for that matter. We are all, each of us, irreplaceable in that sense.

Programming, on the other hand, is a learned skill, like any other. The market value of such a skill depends on supply and demand. If you can code 10 times faster than an Indian you’re worth 10 times their price.

There are many directions in which imagination can take us. We can create new programming tools that increase our efficiency. We can create new programs that do jobs no one has previously imagined.

That’s why The World of Always-On is so important. It’s a big new dream, a great new realm in which developers might ply their trade, creating enough work to keep all the Indian, American, Russian, and Chinese programmers in the world happily occupied for years to come.”

Outsourcing is good for India – but it will only provide a few million jobs at best. What’s also needed is for Indians to come up with innovations to raise the incomes of the rest of India – the 700 million in rural India. Only then will India will start to make the transition from an agricultural economy.

Business and Innovation

Dave Pollard writes that businesses are once again starting at look at innovation as a way to grow, and discusses a survey by the Boston Consulting Group:

In what I think is the most useful section of the article, several innovation ‘traps’ are outlined:

  • The Denominator Trap — believing an innovation can capture 100% of an existing product’s market from competitors
  • The Sustainability Trap — underestimating the costs of sustaining market share for the product in years after the initial launch
  • The Substitution Trap — not anticipating how an innovation can cannibalize the market for the company’s existing products
  • The Uniformity Trap — not treating every new product launch as unique, requiring different approach and sustenance
  • The Tactical Trap — short range thinking, not assessing the strategic impact of the new product, competitors’ likely response, and the ‘fit’ of the product with the rest of the company’s line, image etc.

    Some additional ideas that I suggest in my Innovation Incubator process:

  • Consider having your core innovation team in a separate, autonomous business unit or company. Creative minds are often very entrepreneurial, and flourish when they are relatively free from bureaucracy, and when they have some of their own skin in the game.

  • Use ‘pathfinder’ customers on your advisory team — the select few existing customers who always seem to be a step ahead of the pack, open to new ideas, but solidly aware of marketplace realities

  • Learn the process of ‘thinking customers ahead’. Through scenarios, iterative ‘what if’ exercises, future state visioning and other practices, you can help your customers imagine where their own business will be and could be three or five years from now, and hence what they might want to buy from you by that time to stay ahead of the competition.

  • Don’t leave valuable knowledge on the table. An understanding of how consumer tastes are changing in completely different areas from those in which your business operates, an understanding of where the economy is going, and an understanding of demographic changes can provide enormous insight into the potential market for your innovations.

  • In assessing ideas, don’t overlook aspects other than customer enthusiasm: deliverability, quality assurance, sourcing of materials, strategic ‘fit’ with your other products, your company’s image and your corporate ‘culture’, the ‘packagability’ of the product (easy to explain, distribute and use), possible alternatives, and possible conflicts (competing with your customers, regulatory hurdles). Some wonderful ideas have crashed and burned for reasons that had nothing to do with market acceptance.

  • There’s no such thing as too much testing. Small, continuous testing of every aspect of your innovations — checking and rechecking the market, product quality, timing, ease-of-use, perceived value, life cycle, competitors’ offerings, and many other things will allow you to ‘fail fast and fail early’, so that the probability of a successful launch is maximized.

  • Bus. Std: Say Hello to the Always-On World

    My recent column in Business Standard:

    Imagine a world where access to networks is the norm and not the exception, where information is available and notified in real time, where people are reachable independent of their location, and where objects can talk to other objects. This is a world where pervasive wireless networks create an atmospheric layer of connectedness between people, computers and things. This is the always-on world. It is a world that is being born, creating new applications and opportunities.

    The 1980s saw the computing revolution, while the 1990s saw the communications revolution – in the form of mobile telephony and the internet. This decade is seeing it all merge into an IP-based wireless and broadband revolution. The cellphones have greater power than the early personal computers, and computers are coming with in-built wireless connectivity. Even as wireless and the ethernet are combining to provide high-speed access to homes and offices in the coming months, optical fibre networks provide the backbone to connect networks.

    India, too, is starting to see the first glimpses of the always-on world. Telcos have started offering always-on, narrowband internet connectivity at fixed, affordable prices. Code division multiple access and general radio packet switching cellphones offer internet access. Service providers are setting up Wi-Fi hotspots and broadband-enabled cybercafes. Computer prices are falling, driven by a reduction in levies and increased competition. This year will see India add over 30 million cellphones and four million computers. Low-cost “thin” computers have the potential to accelerate the penetration of computing even more. The lack of a legacy installed base means that India can leapfrog directly to the always-on world. The availability of networks and access devices is helping to create the infrastructure for the always-on world.

    What is missing is the content and applications that can take advantage of this ubiquitous platform. This development in India has so far been hobbled by the lack of a delivery infrastructure and the limited access device base. Suddenly, these limitations of the past are disappearing. What application developers and service providers can expect in the always-on world is a computing and communications platform that is real time, affordable and everywhere. Here are a few examples of solutions that can be created for the new, emerging world:

    Connected homes: Low-cost terminals can be used to offer e-mail, chat, local information and limited transactions (bill payments, ticketing) for lower middle-class homes, for which the PC may still be too expensive. Services for tiny businesses: Small shops and neighbourhood stores can be provided networked terminals for providing updates on sales and inventory levels to wholesalers, and doing their accounting electronically. This can help bring down inventory costs across the value chain.

    Sales force automation for SMEs: The mobile workforce in small and medium-sized enterprises can be given wireless-enabled handheld devices which can be used for real-time sales management.

    Logistics and distribution for large enterprises: There is a need for fleet management applications to track trucks and other delivery vehicles as they move across the country. In the coming years, technologies like radio frequency identification (RFID) will enable individual items also to be tracked as they move across the value chain.

    IT for education: With the increasing focus on universal primary education, schools can be given graphical terminals with a server for computer and computer-enabled education. Multimedia content can be created by the best teachers and distributed through the network to schools.

    Today’s interactions on the web are in the form of request-response – we type the address of a website (or click on a link), and then are taken to the destination page (or website). We need to drive the interaction. What always-on infrastructure does is create the base for the publish-subscribe-web (PubSubWeb).

    The PubSubWeb makes possible a new class of information that has the following four attributes:

  • It is frequently updated (as opposed to being static)
  • It needs to be repeatedly distributed to a continuously interested set of entities (as opposed to one-off, need-based access)
  • It is incrementally accessed (as opposed to getting the complete chunk and figuring out what has changed)
  • It needs to be “pushed” in real time (as opposed to demand-driven “pull”).

    In essence, the PubSubWeb establishes an information stream between information producers (publishers) and consumers (subscribers), making possible a whole range of new applications and services. For example, cricket updates, stock quotes, news alerts can be streamed to interested users in the form of microcontent – just the relevant and incremental snippet that has changed, rather than full pages with a lot of redundant information. On the PubSubWeb, information is syndicated by publishers and subscribed to by users. Weblogs and news aggregators are a good example of what the PubSubWeb makes possible. When a weblog is updated, it notifies a central server of its update, which in turn alerts users who have subscribed to receive the updates. Special software (news aggregators) can now go to the weblog, pick up an XML file, parse it, and make the incremental updates available to readers. This process eliminates the need for readers to keep scanning websites to see what content has changed.

    Just as HTML powered the request-response web, rich site summary (RSS) will power the PubSubWeb. Think of the PubSubWeb as the next upgrade to the web as we know it today. It is made possible by the always-on infrastructure that is being constructed. The tools and building blocks for the PubSubWeb exist. What is needed is for service providers to aggregate these tools and integrate them in a seamless manner to build a complete information and events refinery.

    The always-on world will thus bring forth new innovations. It is an idea whose time has come.

  • GlobalSpec: A Parts Catalog Aggregator

    Rafe Needleman writes:

    If you want to find a specialized electronic component for your engineering project, you can search the Web for it, but that can be a frustrating experience. While almost all component manufacturers put their catalogs online, they don’t do it in a consistent, data-driven way that helps people looking for parts, much less looking to compare them between manufacturers. While the data is all on the Web, it often doesn’t seem like it, since it is so hard to find.

    So GlobalSpec has created a system that collects information about parts from 10,000 catalogs that list about 50 million different parts and services, from transistors to air compressors to contract machine shop services. GlobalSpec president John Schneider thinks that of all the parts an engineer could order for a project, he has about 20% accounted for in his system.

    Compared to Froogle or a site like NexTag, GlobalSpec’s difference is the granularity of its data. Compared to Ariba, GlobalSpec is less ambitiousit’s just a catalog aggregator. But that may be just what engineers need. If you’re looking for a control valve, you can specify the range of maximum flow it has to handle (in your choice of 15 units of measurement), as well as precisely what centering mechanism (spring centered, spring offset, etc.) you’re looking for.

    It is, in other words, a fairly typical online publishing enterprise, combined with some well-understood search engine economics. But I find it interesting because lately I’ve been seeing more and more specialized search tools and catalogs.

    Despite the many advances in Web searching, and in the protocols and standards that make it easier to publish information on the Internet, there seems to be a growing need for specialized directories to make sense of all this information.

    Specialty (vertical) search engines look like the next niche.

    TECH TALK: Rethinking Search: The Next Indian Search Engine

    As we look at the attributes of the next Indian Search Engine, there are two principles from open-source software development which we should keep in mind: user customisability and distributed collaboration. These two ideas have laid the foundation for the development of Linux and various other software applications by thousands of committed individuals worldwide. Well see how we can leverage these ideas to build the Next-generation Indian Search Engine (NISE).

    Beyond Google: There is no point in trying to replicate what Google has. The goal should be to do what Google is not able to do. So, rather than trying to crawl millions of pages and try and run PageRank-like algorithms, the focus should be on trying to working around Google, not trying to compete with it.

    Multi-Word Search: This idea stems from the Unix shell and command-line interface. The goal for NISE should be to provide precise results based on what the user wants. For this, the user should be given a single interface which provides a window on other specific websites. For example, a search for films Mumbai should be able to provide a list of the theatres. This is what Google is trying to do in the US context it should be possible to quite effectively create a language for search.

    Not One Directory: The Web has become too big for one directory to hold all the information. Instead, users should be given a platform to create their own directories on topics which they understand. Using OPML, it should be possible to create an infinite network of transcluded distributed directories.

    Better Visualisation: Amazingly, it is only now that ideas from information visualisation (for example, Groxis) are making their way for viewing of search results. By clustering results and providing visualisation techniques, it should be possible to provide rich interfaces for navigation.

    Mobile Devices Search: The current search results are best shown on a web browser. Yet, in countries like India, the number of mobile devices outnumber the computers. So, the focus should be on how NISE can provide accurate results for what users want to do in the form of microcontent that can be sent and displayed on mobile devices.

    Local Focus: NISE needs to have a local focus. Much of our life is spent in neighbourhoods. It is quite hard to find local information in the vicinity of where we live and work. NISE should focus on providing a platform for local providers to update content which can then be distributed to interested users in the neighbourhood via RSS.

    Target SMEs: The big set of enterprises which need a vehicle to reach their customers are the SMEs (small- and medium-sized enterprises). NISE must cater to this set of advertisers. They have very few alternatives to reach out to users yellow pages, local banners, flyers in newspapers. Giving them a cost-effective electronic delivery vehicle for as low as Rs 50-100 a day can provide a win-win service for connecting consumers and local, small businesses.

    Context: Googles focus is on providing the same, consistent results irrespective of who does the search. NISE should focus on leveraging context and personalization by knowing more about the user, it should be possible to provide more accurate information, and not just links to tens of thousands of pages.

    Tomorrow: The Next Indian Search Engine (continued)

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