Archive for the ‘comments on books’ Category

Stef Wertheimer and Hank Rearden

Thursday, February 3rd, 2011

אחד מהגיבורים בספר “מרד הנפילים” של איין ראנד הינו האנק רירדן שתואר כתעשיין.

בביקורי האחרון בחנות ספרים נתקלתי באוטוביוגרפיה של התעשיין הישראלי סטף ורטהימר.  קניתי ויום לאחר מכן כבר גמרתי לקרוא את הספר.  בכל סרט שראוי לשם “מרד הנפילים”, ורטהימר היה יכול לשחק את תפקיד רירדן והמראה שלו היה מתאים לדמות.  כמו כן, אם לא היה בוחר בכיוון הציוני של הקמת ושכלול מדינת מקלט ליהודים, יש להניח שפעילותו היתה דומה לזו של רירדן.  ורטהימר דוגל בעקרון הלסה-פר - על הממשלה להמנע מהתערבות בניהול עסקים.  הוא ציין דוגמא של פיקוח על עופות בתקופת הצנע הישראלית, וטען שאם היו מעסיקים את הפקחים בגידול עופות, זה היה פותר את בעיית אספקת העופות לכל ישראל.

באוטוביוגרפיה שלו, תיאר ורטהימר את ההיסטוריה של ישקר, יצירתו התעשייתית, ושל מאמציו לחינוך והכשרת עובדי תעשייה ברמה גבוהה.  הספר מיוחד בהיותו סיפור שעדיין לא נגמר - ורטהימר לא בחל בתיאור פרויקטים שנמצאים עדיין בביצוע או בתכנון, כמו שמתאים לאדם שלא יפרוש כל עוד הוא יכול לעבוד.

כשקראתי את הספר, חשבתי לעצמי שאם המשפחה העשירה ביותר בישראל היא משפחה שעשתה את הכסף שלה בתעשיה דהיינו משפחתו של סטף ורטהימר, ולא משפחה של בנקאים, איילי נפט או מחצבים, או אנשי נדל”ן, זה אומר שבכל זאת יש משהו נכון בכלכלה הישראלית.

The Financial Services Marketing Handbook

Saturday, October 20th, 2007

Authors: Evelyn Ehrlich, Ph.D., and Duke Fanelli.

English edition originally published by Bloomberg Press (2004), ISBN-10: 1576601560.

The book was translated into Hebrew by Esti Vachtel, and the Hebrew edition was published by Triwaks Enterprises/Matar Publishing House at 2006. The Hebrew translation is excellent.

The target audience for the book are financial service providers. Their point of view is also the one expoused in the book. The book does not teach them how to cheat their customers, but it hints at the annoyance of legislation limiting telemarketing and spam E-mail.

The original reason for my reading the book was to learn how we are being cheated by financial service providers. However, the book turned out to be unsuitable for this purpose.

The book provides good introduction to marketing in general, dividing it into the following sub-topics:

  • Market segmentation
  • Positioning and branding
  • Marketing plan
  • Advertising
  • Public Relations (PR)
  • Sponsorship
  • Direct Marketing - direct mailing, telemarketing
  • Internet
  • Personal Marketing - cooperation between marketing and sales
  • Exhibitions and Seminars
  • Customer Conservation (Customer-focused marketing)

According to the book, marketing of financial services differs from marketing of other products or services in the following ways:

  1. Financial services are not products, as usually defined. Products are something, which can be branded and guaranteed to be identical for all customers. However, financial services are tailored for each customer separately. Financial services are also not services, as usually defined: each customer has different experience, according to the banker or broker serving him.
  2. Financial services are often “sold” not by the provider’s employees but by independent sales agents, such as insurance agent, pension fund consultant, or personal finance consultant. Therefore, marketers of financial services need to sell their service to both the customer and to the sales agent.
  3. Financial services need to be sold as both product and service. There was an example of a credit card, which was sold without good post-sale service, so customers cancelled it en masse.
  4. As a product: it is possible to separate production of a financial service from its consumption. It is not a perishable product. It is amenable to mass production.
  5. As a service: it is possible to launch it with low initial expenditure. One can enter market quickly. On the other hand, it is impossible to have exclusivity (no intellectual property right protection).
  6. Money has heavy psychological luggage.
  7. This economic sector is very regulated!

The book ends with an appendix, which illustrates how four financial service agents succeed by applying the principles expoused by the book to their specific circumstances.

1421 - The Year China Discovered the World, by Gavin Menzies

Thursday, October 4th, 2007

Arie Hashbia translated the book into Hebrew, and the Hebrew translation was published at 2007 by Korim (1995) LTD. The original was published by Bantam Dell Pub Group (2003), ISBN-10: 0553815229.

The book provides a fascinating account about world discoveries made by Chinese sailors before Columbus and his colleagues.

“Discoverer” - a legal term

It is often overlooked that the European usage of the term “discoverer” is in legal context, rather than being a statement of fact. This is much like assigning a patent to someone, who has the rights over an invention, rather than to the true inventor.

In practically all cases, lands discovered by “discoverers” were already populated by native humans. Those natives are presumably descendants of the original and true discoverers, whose accounts were lost to history.

To be a legal discoverer, one usually needed to be sponsored by a king, bring with him ships, and know how to negotiate agreements with the natives. Even Europeans like Leif Ericson, who discovered new lands without having been sponsored by a king, are not regarded as official discoverers.

Therefore, the claim that China discovered the world does not really contradict the claim that certain Europeans are “discoverers” of certain parts of the world.

Criticism about the book

The ideas given by the book are hotly disputed, and I am sure that the dispute is abetted by some oversights and shortcomings of the book, even though in general it respects the scientific method. The following details some problems, which I found in a single reading of the book.

Missing content

  • There are no details about the trip in the northeast passage (north of Siberia).
  • The Chinese seem to have discovered Australia well before 1421. Yet there is no account about the time and circumstances of the original Australian discovery.
  • There are no more details about hypotheses why the Chinese were not in regular contact with the 15th century Europeans.

Superfluous content

  • Relatively much space was devoted to the early explorations of the Portuguese (like the hypothetical pre-Colombus Antillean islands settlement).

Style comments

Note: the style comments apply to the Hebrew translation of the book, which I actually read. The original English version of the book may be free of those style problems.

  • Refers to Portuguese as Portugals.
  • There is no index.
  • The book is missing modern maps, which mark all the islands, rivers and geographical places mentioned in the trip accounts. Those maps would have provided some contextual information. There are some maps, which show sites of archeological findings, but they do not have names.

Methodology

In spite of the general respect to the scientific method exhibited by the book, there are some methodological shortcomings.

  • The work ought to have been done as a Ph.D. thesis with the help of an advisor. There are several statements, which were not adequately supported by fact, and which reveal that the work was not done with help of an academic advisor. In other cases, lack of cooperation with authorities was mentioned as a reason for failure to obtain some crucial evidence. A Ph.D. student would have found it easier to get cooperation than an autodidect investigator.
  • Page 444 in the Hebrew version mentions a New York Times article, which criticized the book. However, the Hebrew edition of the book failed to reproduce the major critical points and their refutation by the author. So it was not intellectually courageous.
  • There was mention of plants brought by the Chinese from some areas of the world to other areas. However, it was not explained how do we know that a plant came from territory A to territory B, rather than vice versa.

Follow-on Work

Answers to the following questions would have expanded the book’s scope, so they are suitable for follow-on work.

  • Put the 1421-1423 trips in the context of a larger epic of Chinese explorations of the world - Chinese Sea, Isles of Spices, Australia/New Zealand; and then Africa, Americas, Europe?
  • The history of Indonesia and the isles of spices could be interesting reading at its own right (including account of islamization of the area).
  • Could the Chinese know about America even before 1421?
  • Did the Chinese perform any preliminary research to find the regime of winds and sea currents, so that they’ll know that they’ll eventually return? Such a research could have been performed by floating bottles in the waters.

A successful businessman: richness does not automatically bring happiness

Sunday, September 23rd, 2007

Most books written by and about successful businesspeople and business gurus deal with the “How” part of the success equation.

Jacob Burak’s Hebrew language “Do Chimpanzees Dream of Retirement” (© 2007 by Jacob Burak and published by Kinneret, Zmora-Beitan, Dvir - Publishing House Ltd.) starts with a short autobiography, and then courageously dives into the “Why” part of the subject matter.

Jacob Burak is an Israeli businessman, who was one of the founders of the Evergreen Venture Partners, an Israeli venture capital investment house.

After exploring the relationship between richness and happiness, Burak discusses the “result test” and the value of cautious risk taking.

Another section of the book deals with the motivations of successful entrepreneurs. This subject is covered also by the English language article “How would you want to be eulogised?” written by the same author.

The second half of the book deals with the various traps and pitfalls, which cause wise people to make unwise decisions. One of the subjects dealt with is the economic value of trust, about which Burak also lectured in the TechIA Forum (lecture summary in English).

A combined book review and author interview can be found in “How to make money - or at least be happy”.

The refreshing, no-bullshit point of view of Burak’s book reminded me of Freakonomics.

Book review: Steve Krug’s “Don’t Make Me Think!”

Sunday, August 26th, 2007

DON’T MAKE ME THINK! - A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability, Second Edition
© 2006 Steve Krug
Author: Steve Krug
Pages: 201
Publisher: New Riders
ISBN: 0-321-34475-8
The book introduces the principles of Web usability, and explains how to overcome political obstacles to actual implementation of usable Web sites. Being an introduction, the book is rather superficial. However, it has several footnote references and a section devoted to Recommended reading, which would benefit people, who want to learn more about Web usability.

In practical world, Web site design and implementation is fraught with politics, due to the large number of stakeholders in a typical organization. The book covers the political aspects as well, even though its title does not reflect this fact.

The book is very readable, and is rich with colorful illustrations. To fully benefit from the book, the reader should have browsed Web sites and to have participated in a Web site building project.

The book was designed to be readable in a single flight. I actually finished reading it in less than four hours, excluding pauses. In my opinion, it meets very well the needs of beginning Webmasters, and of busy executives in charge of Web site design projects.

The book starts with an introduction, which explains why the book is thin, and what was left out of it and why. Chapters 1-5 cover the guiding principles, which can be summarized as follows.

Krug’s Laws of Usability:

  1. Don’t make me think!
  2. It doesn’t matter how many times I have to click, as long as each click is a mindless, unambigous choice.
  3. Get rid of half the words on each page, then get rid of half of what’s left.

Principles:

  • Create a clear visual hierarchy.
  • Design pages for scanning, not reading.
  • Conventions are your friends.
  • Users like mindless choices.

Facts of life:

  • We don’t read pages. We scan them.
  • We don’t make optimal choices. We satisfice.
  • We don’t figure out how things work. We muddle through.
  • Steve Krug’s wife: “If something is hard to use, I just don’t use it as much.”
  • People won’t use your Web site if they can’t find their way around it.

Chapter 6 treats the subject of Web site navigation, covering search, breadcrumbs and tabs. It also introduces the “trunk test”.

Home pages have their special technical and political issues, so chapter 7 discusses home pages. An home page needs to answer the following questions:

  1. What is this?
  2. What do they have here?
  3. What can I do here?
  4. Why should I be here - and not somewhere else?
  5. Where do I start?

The conscientious Web designer will find in chapter 7 also a list of the top five plausible excuses for not spelling out the big picture on the home page, along with arguments, which refute those excuses.

The next two chapters, chapters 8-9, deal with the politics of designing for usability and present usability testing as a way to reduce the impact of “religious arguments”. Chapter 9 provides also a list of the top five plausible excuses for not testing Web sites, along with their refutations.

Chapter 10 deals with the benefits to an organization from improved usability of its Web site. Chapter 11 covers accessibility. Chapter 12 deals with the politics of bad design decisions and how to overcome them.

The following points pertaining to politics are covered by the above chapters:

  1. Home page design is fraught with politics, because there are several stakeholders.
  2. Usability testing is presented as antidote to religious arguments in the Web design team.
  3. People are afraid that better accessibility degrades the experience of non-disabled users.
  4. Bosses want to ask too much personal data.
  5. Bosses want to add “sizzle” to the Web site.

The author’s Web site is at http://www.sensible.com/.
The first edition of the book had three chapters about usability testing, which were condensed into a single chapter in the second edition. The original text of those chapters can be found in http://www.sensible.com/secondedition/.

The book was reviewed also in Amazon Web site: http://www.amazon.com/Dont-Make-Me-Think-Usability/dp/0789723107

The following are reviews of the first edition of the book:

The following is an interview with the book author: Meet the MasterMinds: Common Sense Web Design with Steve Krug.

Stephen Wolfram’s “A New Kind of Science”

Sunday, July 29th, 2007

Few months ago, I at last bought my copy of “A New Kind of Science” by Stephen Wolfram (ISBN 1-57955-008-8). I expect to finish reading the entire book few months from now, and then go on to reading other books.

The book fulfilled my expectations of being interesting and intellectually stimulating book.

The first observation, which I made from reading the book was that (more…)

A way to pass the time during Yom Kippur

Wednesday, October 12th, 2005

… is to read the tome “The Shepherd - The Life Story of Ariel Sharon” by Nir Hefez and Gadi Bloom.
I am still in the year 1969, but I am already impressed by the circuitousness of his life story. He was groomed by David Ben-Gurion, the first Prime Minister of Israel. In the 1950’s he founded Unit 101 and later, in spite of quarrels with other commanders of IDF, he was made responsible for developing methodologies and training soldiers. He already exhibited the qualities of thorough preparations and rigorous postmortem analyses, which served him well in his career.
If his qualities were not needed for defending Israel against its enemies, he would probably have become an agricultural or biotechnology tycoon by now.

"Business Under Fire" by Dan Carrison

Monday, August 8th, 2005

Review of “Business Under Fire” by Dan Carrison, published by AMACOM. ISBN 0-8144-0839-7

When I attended August Penguin 4 (last Thursday, Aug. 4 2005), ComBooks had a booth, in which they offered books for sale. Most of the books were about Linux, PHP and other technologies. However, they had also some business oriented books.

I figured that most of the technical books are either too fat, prone to be obsolete soon, have downloadable equivalents, or already owned by me. So I went for the business book “Business under fire”.

Today I finished reading it, and here is my review.

The book is about the ways Israeli businesses coped with problems caused by the Al-Aqsa intifada, and what can businesspeople from elsewhere learn from the Israeli experience. The best thing I can say about it is that it is effective in filling Israeli readers with pride of their countrymen. The years after 2000 were bad for the Israeli economy. But, according to the book, the Israeli economy did very well considering the circumstances, having contracted only by few percents, rather than having dropped by tens of percents like, say, the Palestinian Authority economy during the same time.

Most of the book consists of interviews with business managers and leaders, large percentage of whom are hotel managers. The interviews are preceded and followed by discussions and checklists of conclusions. Overall, the impressions and conclusions look reasonable, if a bit superficial. However, I found some factual errors in the book. The city name is Tiberias, not Tiberius (pg. 27). The Dolphinarium bombing happened at June 2001, not June 2002 (pg. 142). Israel was hit by exactly 39 Scud missiles, not 40 (pg. 138, 176).

Notably missing were details about the counter-examples, of Israeli businesses, which were not as well managed, and failed during the Al-Aqsa intifada. It was mentioned that the Hyatt chain pulled out of Jerusalem (pg. 29) but there were no further details about the facts and opinions, which led to this decision, except for the murder of Rahvam Zeevi (not mentioned by name), the then Minister of Tourism, in the Hyatt hotel in Jerusalem.

Missing were also figures and statistics about the business climate in Israel. How much did the Israeli GDP drop as function of time? How large hit, as function of time, in tourist traffic and expenditures did the Israeli tourist industry have to incur? Overall effect on Israeli imports and exports? How much were other sectors, besides tourism and Hi-Tech, affected by the Al-Aqsa intifada? What was the impact of having to fly Israeli managers for meetings in New York on administrative and general expenses of running Israeli businesses with customers and investors outside of Israel? What was the impact on investments in non-Hi-Tech, non-tourist sectors of the economy?

My recommendation: buy the book if you are Israeli and need encouragement. Otherwise, wait for a second and revised edition.