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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.

Prezi June 26, 2010

Posted by Brian L. Belen in Odds and Ends, Presentations, Reviews, Technology.
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Any number of presentation software are commercially available today. Of course, Keynote (my preference) and Powerpoint are mainstays, as are cloud-based lookalikes such as Google Documents and Zoho.

And then there’s Prezi.

For all intents and purposes, Prezi is actually internet-based mind-mapping software that makes it easy to present relationships between concepts (interestingly, a presentation made using Prezi is also called a Prezi). Indeed, it seems particularly suited for conveying context, such as how minute details fit into the big picture, allowing one to zoom in and zoom out from disparate thoughts at a click of the mouse. After all, it is dubbed as the “zooming presentation editor.”

In this sense it is a welcome break from the presentation-as-slide-deck paradigm, taking us back to “thinking on paper” where individuals are free to explore diagrams in any order or, if so required, in the order a presenter intends. Prezi allows that: one can approach preparing a Prezi like writing on a clean bond paper or a whiteboard for users to wade through as they see fit, or prompt it to go through points on that sheet in a pre-arranged fashion. Regardless of which approach one chooses, using Prezi requires a somewhat different planning and design sensibility as one would employ using slideware, which I learned by struggling to make a Prezi of my own (see link below).

Offhand, I can see how Prezi can be used as a tool for organizing discussion in a classroom or business setting. Based on some sample Prezis available on the site, I can also appreciate how it can be used to put together some stunning presentations. But there are limitations. While the service is free to use and try — especially for students and educators! — unless one invests in a premium account you will be limited to creating your Prezis online (thus, an internet connection is required) and downloading viewable (non-editable) versions for your computer (both PC and Mac are supported). These offline-viewable Prezis are very good, but I’ve experienced two problems with them thus far. One is that there are instances where graphics don’t display properly in the downloaded version, a problem that may have something to do with my internet connection speed (to load my Prezi online and thereafter download it) as well as the size and format of the images I used. In their place were “circles” where they were supposed to be, clearly not having been downloaded.

The second problem is the viewing consistency of the online Prezi and its offline version. For the one Prezi I’ve prepared so far, regardless of the fact that it presents precisely as I want it to on my browser, the downloaded version has more often than not showed much more than I desired it to for given frames. To me this is crucial, as I intended for some concepts and imageries to be captured and displayed in a precise manner. My guess is that the culprit is a difference in screen/projector resolution, though I honestly haven’t had much time as yet to experiment and find out more. Fortunately, this is only a problem for those in desperate need of such precision, if not those too steeped in slideware to think a little bit differently.

Prezi is free to sign up for and use. I’d recommend it. Just for posterity, here’s the Prezi I put together for the launch of WIWAG Business Weeks under Bato Balani Foundation. I’ll have more to say about that (maybe) in a another post. Note that this isn’t the most effective use of Prezi, but good enough for me to sample what it can do:

[Link: BBFI by the Numbers on Prezi]

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.

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.

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.

XIII May 15, 2010

Posted by Brian L. Belen in Reviews, Video Games.
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Final Fantasy XIIIAfter several years in the making, Final Fantasy XIII is the franchise’s first outing on the current generation of consoles — and one that is quite impressive.

Not that it’s without flaws. In fact, a fair share spring to mind, many of which have already done the rounds on the internet. But these blemishes notwithstanding, FFXIII remains an excellent JRPG for either the Playstation 3 or Xbox 360.

It’s easy to be stunned by how gorgeous this latest Final Fantasy installment looks and feels. Visually it’s superb: with smooth transitions between in-game graphics and the more carefully rendered CGI cutscenes, it’s easy for one to forget that one is actually playing a game and not just watching. Further, the game boasts of another well composed musical score, though western audiences have the misfortune that the original Japanese theme song was substituted with a Leona Lewis single. Boo.

Most people invest in a JRPG for the story, and FFXIII’s is rather strong up to a point. Its setup gives the game an unmistakably epic feel, both in terms of its token fantasy elements — magical beings, two worlds at war, a cool if quirky cast of characters, fates intertwined and destinies to be revealed — and how the plot unfolds. Players are thrust smack into the middle of events with flashbacks (quite effectively), allowing the broader picture to unravel piece by piece. Admittedly, the game is perhaps the most linear compared to most of its predecessors, and there does come a point where an already complicated but otherwise enjoyable story starts to lose its coherence. Yet the first is a tradeoff in favor of storytelling that works well enough, while the second may very well be a failure of localization more than anything else.

Cool also that this thirteenth installment in the series unfolds in thirteen chapters revolving around events that occur across thirteen days. Natch.

In terms of gameplay, FFXIII strikes a nice balance between traditional turn-based JRPG fare and a more action-oriented RPG format with its active time battle (ATB) gauge and paradigm system mechanic. As a throwback to past Final Fantasy installments, players have to wait for a gauge to fill before performing actions; yet the dynamic here is that commands are meant to be queued while waiting. However, one only really has control over the party leader; remaining party members are computer-controlled and execute commands based on the roles — Commando, Ravager, Sentinel, Saboteur, Synergist or Medic — they are assigned. Hence, combinations of roles, or paradigms, and the ability to shift between paradigms give the game some measure of variety and customizability, albeit at the expense of added control.

Much has been written about how the game “opens up” late into the story (after between 25 to 35 hours of gameplay), allowing players to finally go exploring, perform sidequests and level up the characters. This is a welcome break for the game, and perhaps should have been incorporated sooner, but also one where the tradeoffs in game design begin to grate on players. It’s unfortunate, for instance, that there are so many throwaway animations between actions — enemy encounters, riding chocobos, etc. — that are either unnecessary or otherwise throw of the fluidity of the game. Overpowered monsters and enemies, the difficulty of leveling up with ease to match them, as well as how much time is consumesd just moving around to get things done clearly make the game much longer than it need be. Even token elements of Final Fantasy — such as Tonberries, Cactuars, not to mention Eidolons themselves — often come across as excesses that need not have been thrown into the mix, even if the intention were to please the loyal faithful.

That, too, may very well be an appropriate way of describing Final Fantasy XIII on the whole: loyal to its roots, pleasing to a fault, but occasionally a bit much. Yet with its stunning visuals, interesting gameplay and mostly compelling story, it’s as great ride and grand and adventure as any installment of the series has been, if not more.

Switch is Sticky, Too April 30, 2010

Posted by Brian L. Belen in Books, Reviews.
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Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is HardI have to give it to Chip and Dan Heath for sticking their necks out with their writing. In Made to Stick, they wrote about the elements of effective communication and thereby set the bar pretty high for anything else they plan to write. Clearly, though, they’re very capable of walking their talk, as evidenced by their latest book Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard.

All things considered, Switch really amounts to yet another book on change management. But what it has going for it is that it’s easy and engaging reading — precisely because the Heath brothers put into practice what they wrote about in Made to Stick. Hence, they manage to describe a sensible and memorable framework for change management that may very well be effective.

The central metaphor of Switch is that any change effort can be likened to riding an elephant and directing it to a destination: it isn’t easy. Further, inasmuch as there’s a rational component to undertaking any change (the driver), emotions matter just as much if not more (the elephant), as does the underlying context or situation (the path). Thus the Heath brothers’ formula for change management is simple: Direct the rider. Motivate the elephant. Shape the path.

Now if that isn’t a sticky message, I don’t know what is.

Of course, it’s only a useful takeaway from the book if you’ve actually read it; otherwise you may get the impression that the book is simplistic and trite (it’s not). Switch is actually worthwhile reading precisely because it provokes careful thinking about the difficulties of change management. If you’ve ever wondered why some of the best laid plans to get people or organizations to change fail so miserably, this is the book for you.

That said, Switch has one flaw its authors readily acknowledge: while it is useful to deconstruct change into its rational, emotional, and contextual components, these are often intertwined and occasionally indistinguishable. In the context of the book, this is most evident in the case studies presented to illustrate how to put the Switch principles into action, where the discerning reader will readily note that matters pertaining to the rider may very well have more to do with the elephant or the path (the reverse being true as well). However, far from an indictment of the Heaths’ ideas, I say this just goes to show that reality is often messier than theory can allow for.

As with Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath have done us a great service by putting their ideas together in Switch. So remember:

Direct the Rider.

Motivate the Elephant.

Shape the Path.

And Switch.