Software dev, tech, mind hacks and the occasional personal bit

Category: Book Reviews Page 1 of 4

“Predicably Irrational” by Dan Ariely

A friend several jobs ago recommended I read “Predicably Irrational” by Dan Ariely. I bought it with all the best intentions, but somehow it sat on my bookshelf for a long time. Having finally read it, I was impressed. It has some well researched and backed up lessons on human behaviour, plus an engaging style.

Here are some of the ideas that stood out for me.

Relativity (always comparing)

A lot of value judgements and decisions come from comparisons, and are hard to make without anything to compare against. This can be gamed by providing decoy options. Eg, a similar item which is a bit cheaper or more expensive. Or when dating, this could be a less attractive friend along with you.

Executive salaries increased by 3 times when they became public, as other execs demanded more. If all company salaries became public, all employees except the top few would be dissatisfied.

Choose carefully who you associate with and what you look at as you’ll be automatically comparing with them.

Also, if buying a pen for $25, and could drive 15 min to another store to save $7, most people would. But when buying a suit for $455, most would not drive 15 min to get the same suit for $448. But it’s the same $7 saving. The proportion really doesn’t matter.


For something new, the price of the first item that you seriously consider buying will become the anchor price for all similar items. If you want to sell something new for a high price, show it surrounded by expensive and luxurious things to make it in the same luxurious class of things and command a high price. If you want to sell something that is not that new, differentiate it enough so it seems like a new class of item (eg, Starbucks) so it can be anchored with a new price.

Also, if you have made a decision once, it is easy to continue repeating it without thinking about it again.


Free is magical. People will fill in lengthy forms or wait in lines for hours to get something free. Including something for free in an offer is a very powerful draw, even if it is of minimal value overall.

Social norms vs Market norms

We live in two words, one social exchanges and one market based. Gifts stay in the world of social exchanges. Any mention of money switches to market norms. Eg, you could ask your neighbour to help you move a couch and give a gift afterwards as a thank you. But giving cash would wreck the exchange. Similarly, mentioning the cost of things on a date would be disastrous. Once a relationship switches to market norms, it is very hard to go back. Companies can use social norms to their advantage to motivate employees or for customer loyalty, but need to be kind in return for it to work.


Avoiding loss is a much stronger motivator than gain. People overvalue what they own, and don’t want to lose the benefit an item provides. It is very hard to go back once you have “upgraded”.


If you believe something will be good beforehand, your mind will work hard to make you enjoy it to meet your expectations (eg, fine presentation of food). Or vice versa.

Cheating / theft

Most people who consider themselves honest will still cheat / steal a little before they stop themselves (eg, taking a pen from a conference, inflating the value of an item for insurance, eating something from a shared fridge that is not theirs). Thinking about honesty beforehand (10 commandments, an oath etc) makes people more honest. It’s easy to rationalise petty dishonesty. Dealing with cash makes most people more honest (eg, taking a pencil from work is OK, but taking money from petty cash is not).

“How to Stop Worrying and Start Living” by Dale Carnegie

As a long-time fan of How to Win Friends and Influence People, I was excited read this book. Especially the early sections I found very interesting and useful. Some of the later sections feel dated and less relevant. The ideas I found most useful were:

  • If you are worried about something, write out:
    1. What am I worrying about?
    2. What is the worst that can possibly happen?
    3. [Accept it and imagine it happening.]
    4. What can I do about it?
    5. [Then do something about it right away.]
  • “When I am up against a tough situation, if I can do anything about it, I do it. If I can’t, I just forget it. I never worry about the future, because I know no man living can possibly figure out what is going to happen in the future.”
  • Check the facts, and come to a decision, then stick to it unless new facts come to light.
  • “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.”
  • “Instead of worrying about ingratitude, let’s expect it.. the only way to find happiness is not to expect gratitude, but to give for the joy of giving.”
  • “Count your blessings, not your troubles!” — find out what is good in your present situation.
  • “Happiness is not mostly pleasure; it is mostly victory.”
  • “The really important thing is to profit from your losses. That requires intelligence.”
  • Do a good deed every day – ie, one that brings a smile of joy on the face of another.
  • Unjust criticism? Just laugh.
  • Ask for advice: “Won’t you please tell me what I did that was wrong when I tried to do XYZ? You are far more experienced and successful than I am. Please give me your criticism. Be frank. Don’t pull your punches.”
  • According to Henry Ford, how to increase energy and endurance: “I never stand up when I can sit down; and I never sit down when I can lie down”.
  • Relax muscles of face and eyes, relax the tension in your body (do it often) to have more energy.
  • Laugh at your sillier worries, you can laugh them out of existence.

“The Visual MBA” by Jason Barron

I’ve been wondering for a while what you learn from a MBA. When I came across “The Visual MBA” by Jason Barron, promising “A quick guide to everything you’ll learn in two years of Business School”, I thought it’d be worth the time to have a read and find out.

The book is as promised, visual. On each topic it is about 50/50 writing and relevant diagram. It was based on the author’s notes doing his MBA. The book is generally easy to understand – there’s a few places where I wanted a bit more depth to understand the message, but in most places it was sufficient to communicate the concept.

Here are the most memorable points from the book for me:

  • The value of money now vs. the value of the promise/prediction of money in the future, and a way to calculate it using the Present Value formula. It can be used to work out how much money you would need now to equal an amount in the future, or to take the risk into account as a discounting rate on a future prediction.
  • Who are your customers and who are not? You can’t build a product to suit everyone as it will suit nobody well. Instead segment and target the most valuable potential customers and build a relevant, exception product for them.
  • Laddering – what sells is not the product features, it is the personal value. “Ask your biggest fans what they like (a particular feature), why they like it (product benefit), why that matters (personal benefit) and how that connects to a high level personal value”. Eg, fast car – feature: speed, product benefit: get places quickly, personal benefit: makes me feel young, personal value: youthfulness. “Position your marketing materials through the love group’s eyes while targeting the swing group to gain new customers.. Don’t waste time on the haters.” Sale is usually based on emotion evoked (eg, makes me feel cool, youthful etc) rather than the features.
  • When branding, think about what we do (eg, “we bring kids happiness”), then how we do it (“by making toys”) and then why we do it (“because children are our future and each one deserves to smile in a darkening world”). “People care about the WHY we do what we do… that becomes our brand mantra…” and should be used to guide decisions.
  • For people in general, “logic is like a man riding an elephant (emotion). Guess who decides where to go?”. Appeal to peoples’ emotions.
  • “How can we get young people signing up… why? .. because our revenue is going down.. OK maybe the right question should be why is our revenue going down?”. Make an issue tree (like a decision tree on why the problem is happening) and test each branch to see if it is the cause.
  • Advice from Churchill: “Success is going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm”! Ponder then act decisively.

“Selling the Invisible” by Harry Beckwith

Billed as “a field guide to modern marketing”, I found this book a highly interesting read, especially the second half. It is a guide to marketing services (“the invisible”). Some of the stand outs points for me were:

  • “Forget looking like the superior choice. Make yourself an excellent choice. Then eliminate anything that might make you a bad choice.” Ie, address any risks in peoples’ minds, rather than trying to show you are better than all other options. It is very hard to tell if a service was the best, but it is easy to tell if it was bad. Eliminate the fear.
  • “Setting your price is like setting a screw. A little resistance is a good sign.” Beckwith argues that 10% of people will always complain about the price. Resistance in about 10% more (total 20%) is about right. “When it [resistance] starts exceeding 25%, scale back.”
  • Often you are competing against apathy (doing nothing) or the person themselves doing the work.. not another firm.
  • “Don’t assume that logical pricing is smart pricing. Maybe your price, which makes you like like a good value, actually makes you look second-rate”.
  • “The premium service and the low-cost provider occupy nice niches all by themselves. If you are priced in between, however, you are competing with almost everyone”.
  • “Don’t start by positioning your service. Instead leverage the position you have.” eg, Avis ads repeated for years “We’re Number Two. We try harder.”
  • “In positioning, don’t try to hide your small size. Make it work by stressing its advantages, such as responsiveness and individual attention.”
  • “If you’re selling a service, you’re selling a relationship.. before you try to satisfy ‘the client’, understand and satisfy the person.. In large part, service marketing is a popularity content.. be personable.”
  • “A brand is more than a symbol. In the public’s eye, a brand is a warranty. It is a promise that the service carrying that brand will live up to its name, and perform.. a service is a promise, and building a brand builds your promise.. Invest in and religiously preach integrity. It is the heart of your brand… Brands are decision-making shortcuts [for busy people].. Make selling easier, faster and cheaper. Build a brand… A brand is money.”
  • “Selling a service involved personal risks [rejection etc].. risk yourself.”
  • “Saying many things usually communicates nothing.. Meet your market’s very first need: Give it one good reason… After you say one thing, repeat it again and again. Watch and perfect the visual clues you send.. repeat yourself visually, too.. Give your marketing a human face.”
  • Be genuine and honest, show your passion.
  • “Take advantage of the Recency Effect. Follow up brilliantly.”
  • “Execute passionately. Marginal tactics executed passionately almost always will outperform brilliant tactics executed marginally.”
  • “Above all, sell hope.”
  • “Your parents were right. Say thank you. Often.”

“The Magic of Thinking Big” by David Schwartz

You might think that a book first published in 1959 would be hopelessly dated. But no, “The Magic of Thinking Big” I found an interesting and inspiring read, with most outdated bits easily applicable to more modern parallels (or ignored if too cringeworthy :-). Most chapters have an explanation, supporting stories and clear actions. It’s pretty quick reading as a result, but worth going back over some of the actions more carefully. It is almost funny in parts with how hard the author pushes his points, and full of great anecdotes.

OK, so what is the book about? I’m going to give you some of my favourite bits.

It’s a fine day, and I will succeed

Production in your thought factory is under the charge of two foremen, one of whom we will call Mr Triumph, and the other Mr Defeat. Mr Triumph is in charge of manufacturing positive thoughts. He specializes in producing reasons why you can, why you're qualified, why you will... Mr Defeat produces negative, deprecating thoughts. He is your expert on developing reasons why you can't why you're weak, ...Tell yourself 'Today is a lousy day.'. This signals Mr Defeat into action, and he manufactures some facts to prove you are right.. Mr Defeat is tremendously efficient. In just a few moments, he's got you sold. It is a bad day. 

But tell yourself 'Today is a fine day' and Mr Triumph is signalled forward to act. He tells you 'This is a wonderful day'.. and then it is a good day'. Mr Defeat will convince you that you will fail, while Mr Triumph will demonstrate why you will succeed... 

Now; the more work you give either of these two foremen, the stronger he becomes. If Mr Defeat is given more work to do, he adds personnel and takes up more space in your mind. Eventually, he will take over the entire thought-manufacturing division, and virtually all thought will be of a negative nature. The only wise thing to do is fire Mr Defeat. You don't want him around telling you that you can't you're not up to it, you'll fail and so on... Use Mr Triumph 100% of the time. When any thought enters your mind, ask Mr Triumph to go to work for you. He'll show you how you can succeed...

Let the master thought 'I will succeed' dominate your thinking process. Thinking success conditions your mind to create plans that produce success. Thinking failure does the exact opposite.

Kicking health excusitis

'Bad' health, in a thousand different forms, is used as an excuse for failing to do what a person wants to do, ... failing to achieve success... Looking and looking and looking for an illness often actually produces illness... 

One fellow [with a mild case of diabetes]... belongs to that fraternity of the living dead. Obsessed with a fear of the weather, he is usually ridiculously bundled up. He's afraid of infection, so he shuns anybody who has the slightest sniffle. He's afraid of overexertion, so he does almost nothing. He spends most of his mental energy worry about what might happen. He bores other people telling them "how awful" his problem really is... the other extreme .. he has a severe case, .. but he is not living to be sick. He is living to enjoy his work and have fun. One day he said to me, 'Sure it is an inconvenience, but so is shaving. But I'm not going to think myself to bed. When I take those shots, I just praise the guys who discovered insulin...'

Refuse to talk about your health. The more you talk about an ailment.. the worse it seems to get. Besides, .. it bores people. Refuse to worry about your health... Just being grateful for the health you have is a powerful vaccination against developing new aches and pains and real illness.. Life is yours to enjoy. Don't waste it.


Isolate your fear. Pin it down. Determine exactly what you are afraid of. Then take action. There is some kind of action for any kind of fear. And remember, hesitation only enlarges, magnifies the fear. Take action promptly. Be decisive."

Memory management

Deposit only positive thoughts in your memory bank... everyone encounters plenty of unpleasant, .. discouraging situations.. Most individuals I try to help .. are operating in their own private museum of mental horror. A person can make a mental monster out of almost any unpleasant happening... Don't build mental monsters. Refuse to withdraw the unpleasant thoughts from your memory bank. When you remember situations of any kind, concentrate on the good parts of the experience; forget the bad. bury it. If you find yourself thinking about the negative side, turn your mind off completely.

When meeting important people

Think "We're just two important people sitting down to discuss something of mutual interest and benefit".


Use big, positive, cheerful words and phrases to describe how you feel.. to describe other people... to encourage others.. to outline plans to others. When people hear something like this: "Here is some good news. We face a genuine opportunity.." their minds start to sparkle. But when they hear something like "Whether we like it or not, we've got a job to do", the mind movie is dull and boring and they react accordingly. Promise victory and watch eyes light up. Promise victory and win support. Build castles, don't dig graves!

See what can be, not just what is

Look at things not as they are, but as they can be. Visualization adds value to everything. A big thinker always visualizes what can be done in the future. He isn't stuck with the present... Practice adding value to things, to people and to yourself.

Avoid arguments and petty frustration

Ask "Is it really important?"... "Is it important enough for me to get all worked up about?". Think above trivial things. Focus your attention on big objectives.

Thinking big examples

Views the future as limited .VS. sees the future as promising

Magnifies minor errors. Turns them into big issues .VS. ignores errors of little consequence

Looks for ways to avoid work .VS. Looks for more ways and things to do, especially helping others

Sets goals low .VS. Sets goals high


When you believe something is impossible, your mind goes to work for you to prove why. But when you believe, really believe, something can be done, your mind goes to work for you and helps you find the ways to do it.

Listening & Ideas

Big people monopolize the listening.
Small people monopolize the talking...
ask "How do you feel about it?" "What do you recommend?" "What would you do under these circumstances?"

A leader is a decision-making human machine... ideas of others help to spark your own ideas so your mind is more creative...
Be receptive to new ideas. Be experimental. Try new approaches, be progressive in everything you do... Get stimulated. Associate with people who can help you think of new ideas... mix with people of different occupational and social interests. Circulate in new groups. Discover new and stimulating things to do.

Listen and learn.


When asked, "What are you doing?", the first bricklaer replied, "Laying brick.", the second answered, "Making $9.30 an hour." And the third said, "Me? Why, I'm building the world's greatest cathedral."

Think your work is important. Think this way, and you will receive mental signals on how to do your job better. Think your work is important, and your subordinates will think their work is important too.

People you hang out with

Make your environment work for you, not against you. Don't let suppressive forces - the negative, you can't do it people - make you think defeat.

Take the initiative in building friendships. Introduce yourself to others at every opportunity. Make sure you get the other person's name straight, and make sure he gets your name straight too. Drop a personal note to your new friends you want to know better.

Accept human differences and limitations. Remember the other person has a right to be different.. and don't be a reformer [try and change people].


To activate others, you must first activate yourself. To get enthusiasm about anything - people, places, things - dig into it deeper... Just dig in deeper and you dig up interest.

In everything you do, life it up. Enthusiasm, or lack of it, shows though in everything you do and say... life up your smiles.. your thank you ... your talk.. 

Don't blame others when you receive a setback... instead of sulking or quitting in a huff, [reason] things out. Ask yourself, "What could I do to make myself deserving of the next opportunity?" Don't berate yourself. Plan to win next time.

Spread good news. Broadcasting good news activates you, makes you feel better. Broadcasting good news makes other people feel better too.

Make people feel important

Practice appreciation by letting others know how you depend on them. An earnest "Jim, I don't know what we'd do without you" type of remark.."

Practice appreciation with honest personalised compliments.. compliment people on .. big accomplishments .. [and] little things: their appearance, the way they do their routine work, their ideas, their loyal efforts.. [write] personal notes, make a special phone call or special trip to see them. 

Call people by name.. it gives everyone a boost to be addressed by name. 

Don't hog glory, invest it instead.. pass praise down on to your subordinates, where it will encourage still greater performance. When you share praise, your subordinates know you sincerely appreciate their value. 

Grow the "service first" attitude, and watch money take care of itself. Make it a rule in everything you do: give people more than they expect to get.

When you help others feel important, you help yourself feel important too.

Family time

I've worked out a schedule that enables me to give attention to my family as well as to my work. From 7.30 to 8.30 every evening, I devote my time to my two young children. I play games with them, read them stories, draw, answer questions - anything they want me to do. After an hour with those kids of mine, they're not only satisfied, but I'm 100 fresher. At 8.30 they trot off to bed, and I settle down to work for 2 hours.

At 10.30 I quit working and spend the next hour with my wife. We talk about the kids, her day at work, our plans for the future. This hour, undisturbed by anything is a wonderful way to cap off the day.

I also reserve Sundays for my family. The whole day is theirs. I find my organised program for giving my family the attention it deserves is good not only for them, but also good for me. It gives me new energy.

Concentrate on the biggest qualities in the person [and don't worry about the little things].. do something special for your mate - and do it often.

Be likeable

Learn to remember names... be a comfortable person so there is no strain in being with you. Be an old-shoe kind of individual.. [Be] relaxed easy-going so that things do not ruffle you. Don't be egotistical. Cultivate the quality of being interesting so people will get something of value from their association with you. Study to get the "scratchy" elements out of your personality, even those which you may be unconscious.. heal misunderstanding. Drain off your grievances. Practice liking people until you learn to do so genuinely. Never miss an opportunity to say a word of congratulation upon anyone's achievement, or express sympathy in sorrow or disappointment.

Like people

No person is all good and no person is all bad.. now if we let our thinking go uncontrolled, we can find much to dislike in almost anyone. By the same token, if we manage our thinking properly.. we can find many qualities to like and admire in the same person. Thoughts breed like thoughts. There is real danger if you listen to negative comments about another person, you too will go negative toward that person. [excuse yourself or change the subject]. [If you have negative thoughts about someone] .. say stop... all you must do is think of one positive quality about the individual. In true chain reaction style, this one thought will lead to another and another. And you will be glad.

Get the Action Habit

Action feeds and strengthens confidence; inaction in all forms feeds fear. To fight fear, act. To increase fear - wait, put off, postpone.. Dread making a certain phone call? Make it, and dread disappears. Put if off, and it will get harder and harder to make.

The test of a successful person is not an ability to eliminate all problems before they arise, but to meet and work out difficulties when they do arise. We must be willing to make an intelligent compromise with perfection lest we wait forever before taking action.

Rather than wait for the spirit to move you, sit down and move your spirit. When you want to think, start writing or doodling or diagramming.

Seize the initiative. Be  a crusader. Pick up the ball and run. Be a volunteer. Show that you have the ability and ambition to do.

Turn Defeat into Victory

Study setbacks to pave your way to success. When you lose, learn and then go on to win next time. Research each setback. 

Remember, there is a good side in every situation. Find it. See the good side, and whip discouragement.

Blend persistence with experimentation. Stay with your goal but don't beat your head against a stone wall. Try new approaches. Experiment.


The quickest way to the end is to retire and do nothing. With nothing to live for, no goals, people waste away fast... No medecine in the world .. is as powerful in bringing about long life as is the desire to do something.

The only way to get full power ... is to do what you want to do... gain energy, enthusiasm, mental zip and even better health.

Get a clear fix on where you want to go. Create an image of yourself 10 years from now.

Set goals to get things done.. Progress is made one step at a time.. [Giving up smoking] An hour is easy; forever is difficult. When the hour is up, the smoker simply renews his resolution not to smoke for another hour. Later.. the period is extended to two hours, later to a day. Eventually the goal is won.

On occasion all of us have woken on a Saturday morning with no plans, no agenda.. On days like that we accomplish next to nothing. We aimlessly drift through the day, glad when it's finally over. But when we face the day with plan, we get things done.

Will this help take me where I want to go? If the answer is no, back off; if yes, press ahead.. Prepare to take detours in your stride.


No matter what you do and regardless of your occupation, higher status, higher pay come from one thing: increasing the quality and quantity of your output.. Think, "I can do better" ..[and] ways to do better will appear.

Giving feedback

First I talk to them privately. Second, I praise them for what they are doing well, Third, I point out the one thing at the moment that they could do better and I help them find the way. Fourth I praise them again on their good points. When they walk out of this office, they have been reminded that they are not only pretty good, they can be even better.


Trade minds with the people you want to influence.. "What would I think of this if I exchanged places with the other person?"

Apply the "be-human" rule.. show that you put other people first.. give other people the kind of treatment you like to receive. Ask yourself, "What is the human way to handle this?" Show interest in your subordinates' off-the-job accomplishments. Treat everyone with dignity. Remind yourself that the primary purpose in life is to enjoy it. [Go beyond the call of duty]. Whoever is under a man's power is under his protection, too.

Ask yourself what kind of club, community, school.. would it be if everyone it in acted like you. Think, talk, act, live the way you want your subordinates to .. and they will. Praise your subordinates to your supervisor by putting in plugs for them at every opportunity.

Push for progress.. think improvement in everything you do. Think high standards in everything you do.

Managed solitude pays off. Spend some time alone every day just for thinking [30min or more].

In the words of Publilius Syrus: A wise man will be master of his mind, a fool will be its slave.

Some great questions to ask yourself

Do I think progressively towards my work? Do I appraise my work with the "how can we do it better?" attitude?

Do I praise my company, the people in it, and the products it sells at every possible opportunity?

Are my personal standards with reference to the quantity and quality of my output higher now than three or six months ago?

Am I setting an excellent example for my subordinates, associates, and others I work with?

Is my family happier today than it was three or six months ago?

Am I following a plan to improve my family's standard of living?

Does my family have an ample variety of stimulating activities outside the home?

Do I set an example of "a progressive", a supporter of progress, for my children?

Can I honestly say I am a more valuable person today than three or six months ago?

Am I following an organised self-improvement program to increase my value to others?

Do I have forward-looking goals for at least five years in the future?

Am I a booster in every organisation or group to which I belong?

Have I done anything in the past six months that I honestly feel has improved my community..?

Do I boost worthwhile community projects rather than object, criticise, or complain?

Have I ever taken the lead in bringing about some worth-while improvement in my community?

Do I speak well of my neighbours and fellow citizens?

Buying Books Online in Australia – Alternatives to Amazon

In the past, I have been a happy customer of Amazon USA for technical books, and more recently, even for fiction. Australian bookshops seem to have very limited and expensive stock, so buying online is an attractive option.

Recently some of my colleagues recommended two other options:

  • Book Depository UK: good prices, free international shipping, fast delivery, but at first glance less books than Amazon
  • Booko book price comparison: compares multiple sites including Amazon and BookDepository. Presumably make money using affiliate links from search.

I’ll be giving these a go and posting on the experience in future.

Presentation Zen by Garr Reynolds

presentationzen.jpgAfter being impressed by Garr Reynolds speaking in Sydney a year or so ago, I’ve been keen to check out his Presentation Zen book. It is an enlightening read, especially if you have never studied art or graphics design. The book is a little over 200 pages long, with many illustrations and a impressive, clean layout (no surprise there!).

Near the start of the book, Garr talks about creativity requiring an open mind (child like) and a willingness to be wrong, and to experiment. He recommends exercising restraint, and focusing on simplicity, clarity and brevity. He starts presentations brainstorming using pen and paper, whiteboards or post-its rather than in front of the computer (personally I often use story cards as you can jot slide outlines on them, group, and shift the order around). He recommends grouping the ideas, and identifying the core message and sticking with that message throughout the whole presentation.

Garr highlights the importance of taking the time to slow down and really think about what to put in the presentation. He suggests that you keep two important questions in mind: “What’s your point?” (what one thing do you want the audience to remember), and “Why does it matter?” (put yourself in the audiences’ shoes). If bits of your content don’t aid in answering these questions, “when in doubt, cut it out”! Garr also suggests an “Elevator test” – can you make your pitch in 30-45 seconds? A structure that works well is starting with an introduction which explains the issue (the pain) and the core message. Then something like 3 parts that support your assertions or solve the pain (sounds a bit like Bosworth’s Solution Selling).

“Amplification through simplification” is central to Garr’s design approach. He advocates lots of empty space to highlight just one or a few important elements on a slide. “Simplicity can be obtained through the careful reduction of the non-essential” and decreasing the signal vs noise ratio of the slides. Garr is a big fan of using images on slides with just a few words. The aim is to make slides which have strong, memorable impact, and enhance the presenter’s spoken words. He also highlights the importance of having the audience know where to look. Eg, simplicity plus images leading the eye to the right spot (eg, people in images on the slide look towards the words on the slide). Garr is a big fan of using quotes to support his points.

Garr suggests a mix of symmetrical and asymmetrical slides. Symmetrical are more formal and static, where as asymmetrical slides are often more dynamic and interesting and activate empty space. He also suggests using a grid, such as the rule of thirds (2 horizontal and 2 vertical lines providing a grid of 9 equally sized boxes), with the main subject placed on one of the crossing points of the lines. Contrast (using colour, shape, space, etc) can be used to make an element stand out and helps the viewer “get” the point of the design quickly. Repetition can be used (eg, text on each slide in an image of a post-it) to provide a professional and unified look. Use proximity to group related objects.

Although Garr doesn’t talk about it explicity, his sample slides tend to make use of clever typography. Often lower case text, with most important part in a bigger font. A mix of colours and sizes and styles and sometimes rotations to add interest to the slides. Generally sans-serif fonts.

On presenting itself, Garr says you should be completely present – enthusiastic and completely focused on presentation that you are giving, lost in the moment. Nothing else. Although you may make mistakes, don’t dwell on them. Practice like mad to become confident and appear easy and natural for the presentation. However, remain flexible, aware and open to possibilities as they arise (being “in the moment”).

Near the end of the book, Garr says: “It’s not about us [the presenter], it’s about them. And about the message.”. He also suggests that shorter is better, leave the audience wanting more, not overloaded (as per Japanese proverb “eat until 80% full”). On delivery, Garr suggests standing front and centre, leaving the lights on and advancing slides with a remote.

Garr’s points are much more clearly illustrated using images in the book. I would recommend Presentation Zen to anyone who is interested in making more visually inspiring and interesting presentations.

Po: Beyond Yes and No by Edward de Bono (Book Review)

A few months back, I came across Edward de Bono’s book on Po at a local post office second hand book sale. I decided to risk 50c and buy this out of print, 1972 edition book on creativity and lateral thinking. It was worth every cent 🙂

Until you get a fair way into the book, it’s quite hard to work out what it is about. It is also quite wordy, and oddly organised. However, after reading it for a bit, I found it had some interesting ideas.

De Bono is not a big fan of the yes/no system or argument. He proposes that yes/no mindset that people usually use means that somebody has to be right and somebody wrong. With this mindset, an old theory cannot be replaced by a better one until it can be proven wrong by argument. For subjective subjects, this is not often possible. He proposes that when people have a “right” answer, they are happy and stop looking for a better answer, curbing creativity. Similarly, a “wrong” answer stops that train of thought – and perhaps if it had continued, then a good answer might have been found with ideas triggered from the “wrong” answer.

De Bono sets up PO as an alternative to the Yes / No system and talks about it as a way to break down established patterns and introduce discontinuity in thinking to come up with new ideas. He sees it as an alternative to the “clash” of argument and the “arrogance of logic” in the “closed and highly artificial world” of education, that in later life leads to a “need to be right”. He says that this “need to be right” then leads to people “defending not the idea, but your self-esteem” and having high resistance to new ideas and change.

De Bono disputes a common idea that by choosing the best answer in a series of questions or steps leads to the optimal solution at the end. He shows several examples where choosing the most optimal answer for each step leads to a solution which is not optimal.

Arguably the most interesting part of the book describes a number of tools for lateral thinking.

PO-1: Intermediate Impossible
Rather than immediately rejecting an impossible idea, look at it longer for good points. Reconsider your framework of judgment and concept package – maybe idea is right if you consider the situation in a different way. The idea can be a stepping stone to a better idea. When other people come up with a “wrong idea” listen longer and see where it can take you. This approach can be used as a tool – turn the “idea upside down, inside out, back to front” and “say the most unlikely and outrageous thing you can about the situation – and see where it gets you”.

PO-2: Random Juxtaposition
“When you have exhausted the different ways of looking at the problem from within, you bring in” a random word “in order to generate a fresh approach” through juxtaposition and connecting the words. The random word can be from opening a dictionary at random or from a list of “idea provoking” words.

PO-3: Change without rejection, by-passing old concepts to generate alternatives
“That idea is fine, but let us put it on one side and find a new way of looking at things”, “this is one way of looking at things and it is perfectly valid but it does not exclude other ways, so let us try to find some” or “I wonder if there are other ways of looking at this”. “Why do we have to look at things that way”, lets reconsider our starting point and understanding.

The last part I want to mention is the discussion of retardant doubt. De Bono suggests that with a Yes/No, boolean mindset, you require certainty of being right before acting. If you don’t have this certainty, your doubt holds you back. You may even create false certainty so that you can act (leading to problems later since you’ll then defend this false certainty). However, in the Po system, there is no certainty. The premise is only that the “current way of looking at things is the best one at the moment, but may need changing very soon”. This means you can act without certainty – your action might not be right in the absolute sense, but you are ready to “change it as soon as circumstances demand”. With the Po approach you explore a wide range of alternatives, choose the most effective idea for now, but be ready to change it for something even better.

Overall, I enjoyed the book (though skimmed some more repetitive bits) and plan to try out some of the lateral thinking tools. If you want to get the book, a second hand bookshop is probably a good option. It is quite expensive on Amazon.

“Ruby for Rails” by David Black

Ruby For RailsRuby for Rails by David Black is a fun read that takes concentration but repays it with little epiphanies that explain syntax and language features that you had previously taken for granted.

The book aims to “help Rails developers achieve Ruby mastery”. The coverage of Ruby features is not complete and there are some concepts missed that I would have liked to have read more about (eg, how do instance variables work under the hood?). There are also a number of introductory chapters on Ruby and Rails and some chapters devoted to a sample Rails project (R4RMusic) which I flicked through but didn’t add much value for me (they are also a little dated). By far, the most interesting parts of the book for me were on the Ruby type system, ‘self’ in various situations and how method look up works with modules and inheritance.

An area of Ruby that I had not previously explored was adding singleton methods to instances (like what you can do in Javascript). Eg,

o =
def o.say_hi
  p "hi"

>> o.say_hi

or alternatively

o =
class << o
  def say_hi
    p "hi"

Now, the interesting thing is that this is the basis for the whole class system in Ruby!

Classes are just a special type of object, and when you add class methods, you are really adding singleton instance methods to the class object for the type.

Ie, when you do something like:

class Cars
  def self.find_all

You are actually creating a new object, of type Class which has a singleton method called 'find_all'. 'self' in the code above is the Class object, so def is adding a singleton method to it.

This also explains the alternative syntax for adding class methods:

class Cars
  class << self
    def find_all 

The same thing could be done by saying:

Cars =
Cars.instance_eval { def find_all; ... end; }

In Ruby, the type and class system is not very different from the normal objects you work with every day. I find this really quite cute and internally consistent.

The way the method search path works in ruby was also nicely explained in the book. Basically, finding a method starts at the top of the list below and stops as soon as a method with a matching name is found (ie, that responds to the message sent to the object):

  • Singleton methods on the object
  • Methods defined by the object's class
  • Methods defined by modules mixed in to the class
  • Methods defined by parent class
  • Methods defined by modules mixed into parent class
  • Repeat checking parents until get to Object
  • Methods defined on Object
  • Methods defined on Kernel (module mixed into Object)

This also explains why you can always call methods like 'p' from anywhere. They are coming from Kernel which is mixed in at the top of the inheritance tree for your object. Another case of internal consistency - there's no 'special' mechanism for these seeming globals.

Overall, I enjoyed the book and would recommend anyone having a read who has worked with Ruby and Rails but would like to dig a bit deeper.

“Now, Discover your Strengths” and “Strengthfinder”

A while back I bought a copy of Now, Discover your Strengths by Marcus Buckingham and Donald Clifton, and have only just got around to reading it. The book comes with a single-use code that lets you take an online personality test with 180 questions, with the aim of determining your 5 core strengths. The test takes about half an hour and is not onerous.

The book outlines one main idea. Find your natural talents and capitalize on these, building them up into strengths. Shape your work and life in ways that use your natural talents, as this will make you more effective, productive and happy. Although anyone can learn anything, people with a natural talent in an area are going to be able to reach a higher level of capability and success. Mitigate your weaknesses by partnering with people who have complementary strengths, developing a support system to help you, improving your skills in the area just enough to stop them from detracting from your strengths or simply stop doing things that play to your weaknesses.

The core concept of playing to your strengths is covered from many angles in the book and with supporting stories of successful people like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. There is then a detailed description of each of the strengths that the online personality test can highlight. The last part of the book is interesting and focuses on building organisations which play to people’s strengths, management of people with different strengths and some thoughts on the staff review process in organisations.

Overall, the book was a very quick read with low information density. The online test was fun. You can see my results below. I don’t think it told me anything too new – I already know that I’m pretty analytical, like to learn, focus strongly on achieving tasks etc. The core idea about playing to and building your strengths does seem a good one from the personal satisfaction and cost/benefit point of view (assuming society values the areas you have talents in, and your areas of weakness don’t get in the way too often).

Please note that the following text is Copyright 2000 The Gallup Organization.

Your Analytical theme challenges other people: “Prove it. Show me why what you are claiming is true.” In the face of this kind of questioning some will find that their brilliant theories wither and die. For you, this is precisely the point. You do not necessarily want to destroy other people’s ideas, but you do insist that their theories be sound. You see yourself as objective and dispassionate. You like data because they are value free. They have no agenda. Armed with these data, you search for patterns and connections. You want to understand how certain patterns affect one another. How do they combine? What is their outcome? Does this outcome fit with the theory being offered or the situation being confronted? These are your questions. You peel the layers back until, gradually, the root cause or causes are revealed. Others see you as logical and rigorous. Over time they will come to you in order to expose someone’s “wishful thinking” or “clumsy thinking” to your refining mind. It is hoped that your analysis is never delivered too harshly. Otherwise, others may avoid you when that “wishful thinking” is their own.

You love to learn. The subject matter that interests you most will be determined by your other themes and experiences, but whatever the subject, you will always be drawn to the process of learning. The process, more than the content or the result, is especially exciting for you. You are energized by the steady and deliberate journey from ignorance to competence. The thrill of the first few facts, the early efforts to recite or practice what you have learned, the growing confidence of a skill mastered—this is the process that entices you. Your excitement leads you to engage in adult learning experiences—yoga or piano lessons or graduate classes. It enables you to thrive in dynamic work environments where you are asked to take on short project assignments and are expected to learn a lot about the new subject matter in a short period of time and then move on to the next one. This Learner theme does not necessarily mean that you seek to become the subject matter expert, or that you are striving for the respect that accompanies a professional or academic credential. The outcome of the learning is less significant than the “getting there.”

Command leads you to take charge. Unlike some people, you feel no discomfort with imposing your views on others. On the contrary, once your opinion is formed, you need to share it with others. Once your goal is set, you feel restless until you have aligned others with you. You are not frightened by confrontation; rather, you know that confrontation is the first step toward resolution. Whereas others may avoid facing up to life’s unpleasantness, you feel compelled to present the facts or the truth, no matter how unpleasant it may be. You need things to be clear between people and challenge them to be clear-eyed and honest. You push them to take risks. You may even intimidate them. And while some may resent this, labeling you opinionated, they often willingly hand you the reins. People are drawn toward those who take a stance and ask them to move in a certain direction. Therefore, people will be drawn to you. You have presence. You have Command.

“Where am I headed?” you ask yourself. You ask this question every day. Guided by this theme of Focus, you need a clear destination. Lacking one, your life and your work can quickly become frustrating. And so each year, each month, and even each week you set goals. These goals then serve as your compass, helping you determine priorities and make the necessary corrections to get back on course. Your Focus is powerful because it forces you to filter; you instinctively evaluate whether or not a particular action will help you move toward your goal. Those that don’t are ignored. In the end, then, your Focus forces you to be efficient. Naturally, the flip side of this is that it causes you to become impatient with delays, obstacles, and even tangents, no matter how intriguing they appear to be. This makes you an extremely valuable team member. When others start to wander down other avenues, you bring them back to the main road. Your Focus reminds everyone that if something is not helping you move toward your destination, then it is not important. And if it is not important, then it is not worth your time. You keep everyone on point.

You are inquisitive. You collect things. You might collect information—words, facts, books, and quotations—or you might collect tangible objects such as butterflies, baseball cards, porcelain dolls, or sepia photographs. Whatever you collect, you collect it because it interests you. And yours is the kind of mind that finds so many things interesting. The world is exciting precisely because of its infinite variety and complexity. If you read a great deal, it is not necessarily to refine your theories but, rather, to add more information to your archives. If you like to travel, it is because each new location offers novel artifacts and facts. These can be acquired and then stored away. Why are they worth storing? At the time of storing it is often hard to say exactly when or why you might need them, but who knows when they might become useful? With all those possible uses in mind, you really don’t feel comfortable throwing anything away. So you keep acquiring and compiling and filing stuff away. It’s interesting. It keeps your mind fresh. And perhaps one day some of it will prove valuable.

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