The Knife of Never Letting Go

The full title of the book is The Knife of Never Letting Go: Chaos Walking: Book One. It already has many glowing reviews and several awards, and I’m not doing much here but adding my praise to the heap.

The narrator, Todd, is a boy in a town of men. There are no females, and no other boys. He can hear the thoughts of others, and they can hear his. He is told by the men raising him that he must leave, and that there is no time to explain.

The text poses question after question about what’s going on. Author Patrick Ness serves up answers a little at a time. That’s the main reason I found The Knife very hard to put down.

I suggest that you don’t start reading it late at night; in doing so, I follow and quote Rachel Brown’s excellent review. One of the things I mean by excellent is that it makes most of the points I would have, and makes them well. The points includes some caveats.

One caveat is that the cliffhanger is “truly impressive,” to the extent that this is Book One of a series, rather than a book in its own right. Book One stops with three limbs hanging over the cliff: there is suspense with respect to one of the main characters, to the science in this science fiction story, and to the politics of the planet on which it’s set.

But the (full) title of the book tells us that it’s Book One. A Q&A with the author attached to another favorable review indicates that Chaos Walking is a trilogy. Since Book Two (The Ask and the Answer) is already written, there is hope that it may be one of those good old-fashioned trilogies comprising only three books.

I’m certainly glad I joined Todd on the journey described in Book One, and look forward to rejoining him on the edge of the cliff next May, when Book Two is due out.

Desert Solitaire

Here’s a lovely thought, well-expressed.

I am twenty miles or more from the nearest fellow human, but instead of loneliness I feel loveliness. Loveliness and a quiet exultation.

It’s from (p. 16 of) Desert Solitaire, Edward Abbey’s account of his time as a ranger in the Arches National Park. He was there about 50 years ago. He died in 1989, and so was spared the last two decades of the “industrial tourism” he so despised.

The book provided my bathroom reading for a while, and so helped me get away from it all (or at least from some of it). That copy was a present from my old friend Richard, who received his copy as a gift. I may in turn buy it for my father for Christmas, or I may just draw his attention to my copy during next year’s visit.

Having started with a quote from Abbey, here’s a quote about him. Only a man deeply in love with life and hopelessly soft on humanity would specify, from beyond the grave, that his mourners receive corn on the cob. Richard’s most recent visit coincided with corn season.

So, I highly recommend Desert Solitaire, and, with the holiday gift season coming up, I’m putting The Monkey Wrench Gang on my wishlist.

Music and Models

It was a mixed week for online music. It was particularly tough for a couple of online services. Muxtape announced that it will be unavailable for a brief period while we sort out a problem with the RIAA. I suspect that Mashable Stan spoke for many with his Nooo! and his doubts that the period will be brief.

Meanwhile, Pandora may shut down in the face of the high royalty fees to which online radio is subject. Mike Arrington speculated that Pandora needs to be sacrificed before artists and labels to realize just how absurd their position is.

On the other hand, there are artists who want their music to be widely heard, and organizations eager to work with them to make that happen. Monday saw the release of Everything That Happens Will Happen Today by David Byrne and Brian Eno. They worked with Topspin, as CEO Ian explains.

Had I got a midweek roundup out on Wednesday, it would have looked rather like this post. The music industry continues to live in interesting times.

Changing Blog

Blogging is changing, as it should. To use a ridiculously broad brush, blogging used to be at the center of Web 2.0. Now the term Web 2.0 has got rather worn round the edges, and we have social media.

Blogging is certainly a player in social media, but it’s not a young trendy player. The young trendy players are less about content, either because they emphasize connection (e.g., Facebook) or because they don’t allow room for much content (e.g., Twitter).

That said, the blogosphere is still rather crowded, especially in the Tech Town area. Looking at Tech Town, it seems to get particularly busy at two points in the week. Monday is usually a hectic day. Them at the end of the week, it’s tech review post time.

I think I’ll set up a stall between those two points. So, starting this week, Changing Way will feature a midweek review. But midweek I mean Wednesday, so don’t be surprised to see the review appear on Thursday, or even Tuesday.

I’m not sure what to call it. A combination of Hump Day and Panorama suggests Humporama, but I suspect that name is already in use at sites less family-friendly than this one.

Groundswell Review

I should write something resembling a review of Groundswell, since I have a review copy. I’ve already given it 5 starts at Goodreads. Why?

The book is incredibly well crafted. Many times I found myself applauding decisions made by the authors and the rest of the team (editors, etc.). For example, although the book is to a large extent about how to succeed amidst the groundswell, there are failure stories as well as success stories. There are just enough to provide balance and to avoid too rosy a picture, but no more than that.

Another decision the authors made, and made very well, concerns the discussion of specific social technologies. Although technologies such as blogs and social networks are fundamental to the groundswell, the authors resist the temptation to provide a lot of detail about specific tools. They are right to do so, because the tools will change, while the basic groundswell of people using the social tools to hand at the moment will continue.

If there is one thing not to my taste about the book, it’s that it is so thoroughly crafted that I sometimes wished for rough edges to provide some texture. To illustrate this, I’ll follow in the footsteps of those who have placed Groundswell in a tradition going back through Naked Conversations to The Cluetrain Manifesto. (One such is Conversations co-author Shel.)

Cluetrain is wildly uneven. It’s like an album on which the central track is an all-time classic, but some of the other tracks serve best as warnings of the effects of drug use. Conversations is an excellent early mapping of Blogistan, complete with travel guide for businessfolk. (Perhaps I am biased toward it, since I provided feedback on the chapters as Shel blogged early drafts.)

Like Conversations, Groundswell is rich with case studies. However, Groundswell also includes more numbers. It also provides a more specific framework for action than does either of its forerunners. That POST framework is illustrated by my previous post. You might also want to see my Groundswell mindmap post.

So this is the third of three posts I probably wouldn’t have written were it not for getting a review copy. I like to think I’ve more than justified the publisher’s investment in my copy.

Energizing the Groundswell Groundswell

I have a review copy of Groundswell. The publisher, Harvard Business Press, sent a copy each to 100 bloggers (and I believe that their generous stock of blogger review copies is gone now).

Sending out blogger review copies provides an example of Groundswell thinking. So let’s use it to illustrate the POST framework developed in the book (and illustrated in the Groundswell mindmap I did yesterday).

  • People. The first question is who? Groundswell describes people in terms of their position on a ladder of social technology use. On the top rung are Creators of content. Bloggers are on this rung. (While the target audience of Groundswell includes many who don’t create web content, this example is about those who do. If you want a summary of the other rungs, there’s a short presentation giving more detail about the ladder.)
  • Objective. Having recognized the existence of these bloggers, HBP considered its objective. There are five main objectives; each gets its own chapter, as you can see from the book’s table of contents. We’re concerned here with energizing: helping your customers sell to each other. Selling here doesn’t mean hard-sell shouting. It means telling each other about the book, in this case via blog posts.
  • Strategy. How to achieve the objective? Send the books out! Strategy is a rather misleading term, implying a grander action that putting 100 books in the mail. More generally, I don’t think that strategy is the best word for this third step. I’d prefer action or tactics, but that would mess up the acronym (POST), and this is the kind of book that needs an acronym.
  • Technology. This is the most obvious aspect of the groundswell. HBP in giving away books to people like me is using a specific social technology: blogging. It’s also using some very old technologies: paper, and delivery to a building. In some ways it seems strange to use such old technology, rather than to offer us a download. I’m not complaining or criticizing: I probably wouldn’t have “read” Groundswell in any new fangled digital format.

There seems to be something missing from this example. The chapter on energizing includes an example of return on energizing activity, and there are other examples of return on groundswell activity elsewhere in the book. I don’t see evidence that HBP are tracking the blog posts and other web content generated as a result of energizing bloggers with free books. So it doesn’t appear that they are calculating return on their investment in blogger review copies.

I may be speaking prematurely. It may be that we the freebie-blessed bloggers are about to get an email asking us for links to content that has been energized from us. Then there might be a page at the Groundswell web site linking out to all that content, and presenting it as an example of energizing the groundswell. I think it’s a good example.

Book Reviews and Ratings

Thoughts on book reviews and rating got bumped out of a post yesterday. Two difficulties were on my mind.

The first concerns the ubiquitous 5-star rating system. I find it very hard to give a perfect score to any book. It’s not just books: I have the same difficulty with music, board games, etc. On the other hand, 3 stars or below seems harsh in these days of grade inflation, sensitivity training, etc. So I tend to give a lot of 4-star ratings.

The second difficulty relates to how thoroughly the reviewer read the book. Some books I don’t finish, usually because I don’t like them. Is it fair to give a low review (e.g, 1-star) to a book on the basis of an incomplete read?

Then there are books that aren’t intended to be “read” in the start-to-finish sense. Reference books fall into this category. I was recently reminded of a less central member of the category: Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous and Obscure.

Perhaps there should be some symbol accompanying a star rating to indicate how the reviewer has read the book: thoroughly start-to-end, dipped in to, etc.

Reviewing and Similar Modes of Writing: Costello Connections

Elvis Costello has received a high proportion of my musical attention so far this year. One of the ensuing posts has accounted for a high proportion of this blog’s recent traffic.

I’ve read a couple of books on Costello. This post is about them, and about writing about music, and about writing about books. The first book is Elvis Costello – God’s Comic: A Critical Companion To His Lyrics & Music by David Gouldstone. It’s an update of the same author’s A Man Out of Time. The main difference is that God’s Comic has a chapter on the 1989 album Spike.

Although I enjoyed the extra chapter, and agree with Gouldstone that Spike is among Costello’s best albums, I think that A Man Out of Time is a more coherent book, focusing as it does on Costello’s first decade. The inclusion of good material that reduces the coherence of the whole is appropriate in a book about Costello, especially when the material relates to the sprawl that is Spike.

Writing about music is notoriously difficult. The music blog Dancing About Architecture quotes Costello himself as stating that: “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture… it’s a really stupid thing to want to do.” Let’s not get into tracing the history of that quote, otherwise we’ll never get back to the books.

I think that Gouldstone does a pretty good job in giving his take on Costello’s music and, especially, lyrics, without claiming that his are the last words or the only right words. The writing in God’s Comic is analytical without being heavy.

In that, it contrasts with the writing of the second book: Elvis Costello, Joni Mitchell, and the Torch Song Tradition. Consider the following sentence.

He [Costello] readily models existing musical, literary, or cinematic techniques in service of his songs, and in so doing, enhances his lifework’s sonic diversity.

I couldn’t get through even the part of the book on Costello, let alone the rest of it (even though Joni Mitchell also interests me).

At this point, I think that I should bump the thoughts on reviewing books into its own post, and close by remarking that I have high hopes for another book on Costello. It’s Graeme Thomson’s Complicated Shadows: The Life and Music of Elvis Costello, which will probably be part of my next Amazon order.

Sazze: Like Yelp For Products

While Yelp is an online place to read and write reviews of businesses in your city, Sazze is an online place to read and write reviews of products. It moved from closed to public beta yesterday.

As Mashable Paul just noted, there are many product review sites on the web already. Sazze sets out to be “more of a social, well-networked atmosphere for its users than the average consumer is likely to encounter through many existing services.”

Sazze has an obvious bootstrap problem, in that the quantity and quality of reviews need to be established in order to bring shoppers to the site. There are already many products there, but there seem to be almost as many opportunities to be the first reviewer of a particular product.

I took the opportunity to write the first review of the SanDisk Sansa Clip (1 GB) MP3 Player. I liked the ability, the encouragement even, to link from the review to a URI outside the Sazze site. That said, once the review is published, the relationship between the on-site review and the off-site page to which it links isn’t clear.

Sazze has a “blog” that seems to lack two of the essential features of a blog: a permalink for each post, and a feed.

I think it’s unlikely that Sazze will manage the difficult task of boostrapping within a crowded market segment. Being like Yelp is all very well, but Sazze doesn’t have Yelp’s local angle, and so it’s unlikely to develop Yelp’s local sub-networks of members.

Sazze might be hoping that sub-networks will form around product categories. However, most product categories already have their own specialized sites and activity at existing super-sites. For example, last night I did some research on headphones to go with my Sansa MP3 player. I found plenty of reviews at Head-Fi and at Amazon.

Andy Grove’s Book Survives

A dozen years ago, Andy Grove’s Only the Paranoid Survive came out. I had cause to pick it up again today.

You can find (most of) the preface online at Intel. Here’s the key definition: “a strategic inflection point is a time in the life of a business when its fundamentals are about to change.”

In order to describe the fundamentals of a business, Andy extended Michael Porter’s Five Forces of Competition model into a Six Forces model. The force he added was that of complements. For example, Microsoft Windows was an important complement to Intel’s chips, and remains so today.

OtPS is a Six Forces account of Intel and its environment. That said, it is a dozen years old, and that’s a long time in a tech industry. The risk of obsolescence is particularly acute when we realize that the last chapter is “The Internet: Signal or Noise? Threat or Promise?”, opens with the then-recent story of Netscape’s IPO, and goes on to explain what the internet is. But the chapter stands the test of time remarkably well.

So does the book as a whole. I expect to be able to rate OtPS as highly in another dozen years, for the clarity of the six forces framework and Andy’s exposition.