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GTD July 20, 2010

Posted by Brian L. Belen in Books, Reviews, The Daily Grind.
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Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free ProductivityFor a while, a running joke between the wife and me involved my asking her, “Are you finished with Getting Things Done?”

The wife had picked up David Allen’s book at the mall while killing time a few months back, and when she did I was excited. I knew of the book. I was aware that it espoused a productivity system that was in vogue and that many people swear by. As such, I wanted to read it.

Yet she could never find the time to finish reading the book.

Of course, this amused me to no end. I understood, though: between all the things the wife take cares of when she’s at home, she could only devote so much time to the book. But as a joke, it’s priceless. Can’t finish reading GTD? Epic fail!

Then came my turn with the book, and the wife’s revenge: I got through even less of the book than she did before giving up in frustration.

I realize that GTD can be (and has been!) helpful to a lot of people. Unfortunately, the book doesn’t read particularly well. It has about as much personality as a strip of cardboard and lacks a fundamental characteristic that would immediately create buy-in among it’s readers: it isn’t sticky. The Heath brothers hit the nail on the head that messages work best because they are simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, have emotion and are told with stories. Getting Things Done — the book — has hardly any of these elements, and one would think that the best way to describe how to implement the system would be to tell vivid success stories. Alas, there are hardly any. I’d argue that this makes all the difference.

Thus things stand. Is GTD a good system? Yes. Is the book particularly helpful? Maybe — if you’ve the patience and it’s your thing, or perhaps if there were a seminar to accompany it. Otherwise, be prepared for something that reads like a manual, if not a shopping list.

But should you take the plunge, and feel the same way I do, remember my words: “Epic fail!”

Rework July 11, 2010

Posted by Brian L. Belen in Books, Reviews, The Daily Grind.
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ReworkMy copy of Rework has the subtitle “Change the Way You Work Forever”. An audacious claim, to be sure, and one I feel authors Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson have fallen short of — but not for lack of trying.

It’s an interesting enough book, suited to casual reading on a short airplane trip given its length and subject matter (I bought mine at the airport). Yet I hesitate to agree that it’s as groundbreaking as some of its adherents say. Granted, some thoughts in the book caught my attention and put into perspective how we do things at the office. Notwithstanding this, I felt mostly lukewarm about Rework, finding it without nearly as much wit or insight to offer as its authors intended.

For some strange reason, it seems to me that Ignore Everybody is the book that Rework was trying to be but couldn’t. Admittedly the comparison is unfair, but that was the thought going through my head while reading it.

Change This has a condensed version of the book in manifesto format. It’s worth having a gander, and owing to its brevity may even be better than the book, particularly for those unsure about adding Rework to their shelves.

The Big Short July 5, 2010

Posted by Brian L. Belen in Books, Reviews.
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The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday MachineThere were times while reading The Big Short that I’d find myself re-reading sections because I couldn’t quickly grasp what was going on.

That’s not to knock Michael Lewis’ writing abilities. Quite the contrary, in fact: The Big Short brings Lewis around full circle to the Wall Street he left behind in Liar’s Poker, albeit this time to narrate events surrounding the subprime crisis and financial meltdown of 2007. If anything is clear from this account of events, it’s that the few who knew exactly what was going on were far outnumbered by those with wool pulled over their eyes, either by the complex nature of the financial instruments and transactions that brought Wall Street to its knees or the hubris and greed of brokers and analysts who thought they were too smart for their own good.

In that regard, The Big Short isn’t a definitive account of the financial meltdown. In fact, I submit that it can’t be, what with Lewis’ choice to tell the story from the standpoint of a few boutique fund managers who happened to get it right (one of whom has both a glass eye and Asperger’s — what are the odds?). But I would say that it is probably a representative account of how things went south for Wall Street so quickly, starting with irresponsible subprime lending, moving on to the creation of collateralized debt obligations and credit default swaps, and all with stamp of approval of credit rating agencies that, in retrospect, were the most clueless of all.

In his usual fashion, Lewis is up to the task of weaving all of these into a compelling yarn, albeit one that will occasionally give pause to those not entirely familiar with the technicalities of derivative finance. That is a good thing. The Big Short is easily must-read material, as much entertaining as it is an educational.

Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs June 23, 2010

Posted by Brian L. Belen in Books, Presentations, Reviews.
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The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs: How to Be Insanely Great in Front of Any AudienceA title like The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs simply demands skepticism, especially if it’s not written by the Grand Poo-bah of all things Apple himself. I know that was my gut reaction when I first learned of the book (via Slideshare of all places), thinking that it was little more than a deliberate attempt to score some extra mileage by author Carmine Gallo.

Despite this, two things prompted me to give the book a chance. First, there were these slides:

View this presentation on Carmine Gallo’s Slideshare page.

Second, I chanced upon a favorable review of the book by Duarte Design (available on their Facebook page, but not on their blog for some reason).

So I did give the book a chance, in the end coming to the realization that my impressions of the book — both before and after coming across the above material — were right all along.

Admittedly, there’s a fair amount of helpful tricks and tips about to be found throughout the book, mostly about presentation delivery. Looking at it critically, The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs is really a compendium of observations about the many things Steve Jobs has done so well in year after year of memorable Apple keynotes (and then some). Granted, the book isn’t all about presentation delivery (it touches upon design and preparation, too), but compared to books like Presentation Zen Design and slide:ology, I would say Gallo’s book is more useful for those looking to pick up techniques to improve on delivery.

Notwithstanding this, The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs has two significant flaws that keep me from rating it among other great books about presentations. First, Gallo has a tendency to give more weight to the trappings of a great presentation and not its substance. The praise lavished on Jobs for plainspeak — using terms like “Zippy” or “Awesome” in his presentations, for instance — or his penchant for organizing his thoughts in groups of three come across as shallow and uncritical as the book progresses. With respect to the former, the more Gallo made the point, the more I came to realize how empty such words really are. (Aside: does calling an iPad “magical” really mean anything?) Meanwhile, where the latter is concerned, the book would have more depth if it at least took the time to discuss how triplets are standard fare as a rhetorical device. Perhaps I’m just nitpicking, but it’s things like these that give credence to the perception that The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs is just trying to cash in on the hype surrounding Jobs.

The more substantial flaw of the book, however, is this: it is a book about Steve Jobs’ presentations that has hardly any visuals of those presentations themselves. This makes for an unusual reading experience. Yes, there are some token pictures of Steve Jobs in action (none of which are particularly useful), and Gallo does try to make do with presenting tables that summarize Jobs’ words with accompanying commentary, but these measures are largely ineffective. Granted, Gallo refers the reader to search for these presentations on Slideshare or YouTube, but by and large the book itself has much less impact than the slides above on which the book is based — precisely because the visuals make all the difference.

In the end, I found The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs to be the type of book that will appeal more to the Steve Jobs faithful and those enamored of the Cult of Mac than to the plain and simply presentation-minded. Again, while there are good points one can pick up by reading it (just look at those slides above!), in and of itself it could’ve been a much better book, especially in a space that demands nothing short of the exceptional.

Dan Pink, via Garr Reynolds June 20, 2010

Posted by Brian L. Belen in Books, Odds and Ends, Presentations.
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The following slide deck caught my eye while perusing Garr Reynolds’ Slideshare page:

View more presentations from garr.

I’ve written before about my admiration for his work, and true to form this presentation is amazing. The aesthetic is obviously spot on, and makes the underlying messages on career advice that much more meaningful and relevant for anyone looking for a good motivational shot in the arm.

The presentation adapts material from Dan Pink’s The Adventures of Johnny Bunko. So taken was I by the presentation that I decided to get my brother a copy of the book for his birthday. You can bet that I’ll borrow that book from him once he’s done, and make sure he sees this presentation, too.

Presentation Zen Design June 14, 2010

Posted by Brian L. Belen in Books, Presentations, Reviews.
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Presentation Zen Design: Simple Design Principles and Techniques to Enhance Your PresentationsGarr Reynolds’ Presentation Zen: Simple Ideas on Presentation Design and Delivery should be the standard against which presentation books are measured. One part presentation philosophy, one part aesthetic approach, and all parts downright cool, it makes its case so effortlessly as to make us wonder why we haven’t been making more captivating presentations before. However, with Presentation Zen Design: Simple Design Principles and Techniques to Enhance Your Presentations, Reynolds has done himself one better, and may have written the only presentation book you need ever read.

Presentation Zen Design is not so much a follow-up to the original but a more complete threshing out of the ideas that Reynolds touched on in Presentation Zen. In that regard, the first book — good as it is — seems but a teaser to this more holistic treatise on presentation. Indeed, Presentation Zen Design covers a comprehensive set of topics that should be of interest to presentation mavens of today, be it color selection and typography or white space and photography.

Obviously, Reynolds has exquisitely good visual taste and communications savvy. Looking through his sample slide designs (and redesigns) peppered throughout the book is by itself a treat and an education. But it also helps that he is in fact an educator himself, which shows in chapter by chapter that is instructive, illustrative and easy to read. In fact, it is amazing that Presentation Zen Design strikes one as less technical compared to, say, Nancy Duarte’s slide:ology, even in those areas where the two cover the same ground. And as if his own insight weren’t enough, Reynolds also solicits assistance from his equally talented and like minded peers — such as Scott Kelby, Guy Kawasaki, John McWade and (of course) Nancy Duarte to name but a few — to contribute some insights on different aspects of presentation design.

Espousing truly simple principles with which to approach presentations, Presentation Zen Design is perhaps the most complete book of its kind. While an argument can be made that those interested in presentation need look no further than what Reynolds has to offer here, an equally good case can be made that Presentation Zen Design would be a fitting capstone to anyone’s presentation education. Start with Presentation Zen. Move on to slide:ology. Pick any number of presentation books in between. Then graduate to Presentation Zen Design.

slide:ology June 8, 2010

Posted by Brian L. Belen in Books, Presentations, Reviews.
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slide:ology: The Art and Science of Creating Great PresentationsThere’s a reason I put off reading Nancy Duarte’s slide:ology as long as I did: under deadline with several presentations in the pipeline, I was worried that reading it would cause me to rethink much of the work I had already done. But when I found myself with time before having to begin a new round of presentation preparation, I decided I’d better get started reading it lest it gather dust on my shelf.

Soon after starting with it I was mesmerized. Yes, slide:ology should be required reading for anyone that makes presentations for a living.

My only point of comparison in this regard is Garr Reynolds’ Presentation Zen, which I feel is one of the best books on presentations ever written. Certainly, slide:ology isn’t Presentation Zen, which is only to say that Nancy Duarte’s book has a different appeal (and perhaps purpose as well). To my mind, Presentation Zen conveyed mostly a philosophy about how to approach presentations, and what I got out of it was being exposed to an aesthetic that I wanted to emulate. In like manner, slide:ology challenges readers to develop a new presentation ideology; yet it does so by being a technical reference for how to make captivating presentations.

This is what makes the book a valuable resource, especially given the author’s pedigree. Speaking of which, slide:ology perhaps reads best as a manual for creating presentations of the corporate variety. Yes, the book demands that readers see presentations from a broader perspective, but at the same time it offers a surfeit of detail that is indispensable and useful. Everything from appropriate color selection, typography, and diagram design are covered and are applicable to presentations of all kinds. However, when Duarte begins to delve into the subtle use of complex animations and the necessity for common template design, it’s clear that the book will be most appreciated by business executives and aspiring entrepreneurs.

If slide:ology has any shortcoming, it is this: reading between the lines, it would seem that Duarte’s slideware of choice is Microsoft Powerpoint. This criticism is more than de rigueur ribbing by an Apple fanboy: having made the switch to Keynote myself several years back, I’ve come to realize that the choice presentation software also affects one’s approach to presentation design even if subtly. Indeed, while reading the book there were instances where I found myself thinking that my approach to designing a presentation in Keynote (or even Prezi!) would be rather different.

At 200-over pages, slide:ology is worthwhile reading for presentation mavens — and it’s a short 200-odd pages, considering. Nancy Duarte is right: it’s about time that people developed a new presentation ideology. This book will convince people of that proposition and help show the way.

I’ve Got Presentation on My Mind June 2, 2010

Posted by Brian L. Belen in Books, Presentations, Show and Tell.
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Clearly, I think about presentations a wee bit more than might be healthy. That said, this is one awesome reading list.

Priceless May 30, 2010

Posted by Brian L. Belen in Academically Speaking, Books, Reviews.
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Priceless: The Myth of Fair Value (and How to Take Advantage of It)William Poundstone’s Priceless: The Myth of Fair Value (and How to Take Advantage of It) must be among the better books I’ve read despite its somewhat misleading title.

At first glance, one is led to believe that Priceless is fundamentally about price theory and how to make better pricing and/or purchasing decisions. On that score, it is and it isn’t. To his credit, Poundstone’s work indeed offers fascinating insights on pricing and economic decision-making. Yet outside of select chapters where these are explicitly spelled out, the book does so in a roundabout manner, leaving it mostly to readers to draw their own relevant inferences on the subject.

The reason for this is that Priceless is really two different books in one. The first part recounts the development of the field that would eventually become known as behavioral economics, from its roots in psychophysics to the contributions of two individuals who would become the field’s oft-cited luminaries, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. Thereafter, the book shifts gears to discuss price psychology in a variety of different contexts, such as menu design, the real estate market, and jury-awarded punitive damages (to name but a few).

Personally, I enjoyed the book. To a large degree this owes to that course on experimental economics I took a couple of years back, where Kahneman and Tversky’s research on Prospect Theory was required reading (and arguably the best thing I read all that semester). But apart from that, what’s great about Priceless is that it is perhaps the most comprehensive reader on behavioral economics available today, chock full of stories about priming, anchoring, ultimatum games and other quirky economic experiments bound to catch the inquisitive reader’s fancy.

It wouldn’t surprise me if Poundstone’s book quickly becomes required reading (and an instant classic) in the behavioral economics literature. That is, provided one knows she’s getting something a little different than what she bargained for in Priceless.

Predictably Irrational May 18, 2010

Posted by Brian L. Belen in Academically Speaking, Books, Ramblings.
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Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our DecisionsOne of the first classes I signed up for when I got to grad school was for a course on “Experimental Methods in Finance”. The course aimed to demonstrate how basic principles in finance (and by association, economics) could be understood through carefully designed experiments. The punch line, of course, was that the terminal requirement involved each student designing a financial experiment, putting this together as a paper that we would present to the class.

Even if we didn’t have to actually run the experiment, this was a challenge for me. Not having much experience in finance prior to then, I went about this requirement the only way I knew how: by hitting the books and reading up on other financial experiments (using the bibliographies of our class readings as my starting point). In the end, I settled on proposing a modification to a simple experiment I found in the literature, and thereby ended up doing rather well for myself in the process.

Looking back, I wish Dan Ariely’s book, Predictably Irrational, had already been published. If it had been, it would have been a huge help at the time, and I suspect I would have been able to think up a much better experiment than I eventually did.

The subtitle to Predictably Irrational reads “The Hidden Forces that Shape our Decisions.” Indeed, what Ariely sets out to describe in the book is how human decisions oftentimes consistently deviate from the “rational” models outlined in traditional economics texts, recounting the results from a variety of economic experiments he and his colleagues have conducted in a variety of settings. As the title suggests, the conclusion he draws from these is precisely that there is a certain predictability to how irrational human beings can be, from which we are made to infer that the “rationality” often invoked in mainstream economic thinking can be seriously flawed.

Ariely is one of the foremost behavioral economists of his generation, and this book demonstrates why. It is very accessible reading material for what could potentially be a rather esoteric subject, describing experiments that aim to examine placebo effects (they’re real), how people react to prices are reduced to “free” (everyone loves free chocolate, don’t they?), and whether being reminded of the Ten Commandments induces people to behave honestly (it does!), among others. Granted, not all of these pertain to matters immediately within the ambit of the economics profession; nonetheless, the description of these experiments can be fascinating and does help serve the broader point that human beings may very well be predictably irrational.

At the same time, Predictably Irrational also demonstrates what I consider the shortcomings of economics by experimentation. For instance, one set of experiments described in the book involved understanding how people behave or make decisions when they are sexually aroused. I took exception to this, first owing to what the experiment entailed in terms of what willing volunteers were asked to do , and second because it seemed like an experiment that wanted to be provocative for the sake of being so. Call me prudish, but I think there are some lines that just shouldn’t be crossed even in the name of science.

Furthermore, later parts of the book (mine is the updated and expanded edition), where Ariely offers his two cents’ worth on the recent financial crisis, are arguably the weakest in Predictably Irrational. This is not because Ariely is a bad economist — which he’s not — but because it comes across as a token attempt to be current. The best parts of the book were precisely those that involved describing the different experiments Ariely and his colleagues thought up and the oftentimes surprising results that ensued. But to go from those insights to commentary about world affairs? That seems a bit of a stretch — to me, anyway.

Which, I think is the point. Looking back at that first grad school course I signed up for and the economic experiment it made me think up, what I appreciated the most was knowing that whether or not the result conformed with economic theory I would learn a little more about people and markets in the process. I did, and I feel all the better for it. In much the same way, that’s how I feel about Predictably Irrational.