Jun 02 2019

Book review: Sprint by Jake Knapp

sprintSprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days by Jake Knapp with John Zeratsky and Braden Kowitz is another book in my business oriented stream of reading.

The sprint is a 5 day programme for planning and running a consumer test of a prototype, starting on Monday with the consumer test on Friday. The programme is laid out in huge detail, even lunch times and break times, with suggested menus are proposed and a maximum size for the sprint team of 7. It is something of the spirit of a “sprint” in the Agile sense but not the same thing.

The book arises from the authors’ experiences at Google Ventures, a venture capital firm, and their work with startups for the most part. I suspect this has a bearing of the cited success of the process, startups are typically compact organisations and typically at the beginning they really need to get something in front of customers. This looks like a great way of doing that, I can see it being more challenging in a mature organisation. Knapp does provide some examples from more mature organisations as well, and mentions at the end that college lecturers have adapted it for courses.

Knapp sets up the sprint as being in contrast to a conventional brainstorming session where everyone has an equal say and no idea is too stupid. The drawback of the brainstorming method is that typically a huge number of ideas are generated in the session, many of questionable quality and then nothing happens afterwards.

Sprint is strong on the idea of a Decider, someone that will make the ultimate decision at points through the programme. The Decider is typically someone like the CEO but if the CEO can’t be available all week then they can delegate to someone else. The Decider can be influenced by spot-votes of other participants but they have the casting vote. Spot-voting is when participants indicate preferences by places sticky spots on items. The higher level implication of the Decider is that there is someone committed to the sprint who has the power to make things happen after the sprint has happened.

The five days of the Sprint are as follows:

  • Monday – defining the challenge and coming up with a target;
  • Tuesday – come up with solutions;
  • Wednesday – plan out the prototype;
  • Thursday – build the prototype;
  • Friday – Run the consumer test; 

My experience of brainstorming is that typically the challenge / target stage is done elsewhere, and the main action is in the “come up with solutions” stage. In this programme the “come up with solutions” part is more of an individual exercise than a group one.

The prototype is planned out as a storyboard of around 15 frames which represent the screens someone might see on a website or app as they conducted the core task. The key initial frame might be a fake news article linking to the prototype website.

The prototype is typically implemented as a facade, it is a fake of a website or app built largely in Keynote (Apple’s presentation software). Initially I bristled at this since my special skill is building fairly functional prototypes in short-order but even I would struggle to do that in one working day. Knapp provides a few of examples where the prototype is something else, they worked with a health clinic in the US which tried out a family friendly clinic arrangement in one of their existing clinics, a pump manufacturer who made the a sales brochure for a new pump rather than a model pump and a robotics company who had the majority of a prototype hotel delivery robot already built.

The commitment of time is large, attendees are expected 10am-5pm all five days, actually 9am-5pm on Friday. There is some scope to allow the Decider to make appearances intermittently, and Monday includes an “Ask the experts” session where outsiders can be brought in for 30 minutes or so. I can see in a larger company that it would be hard to carve out the required time. Also in a larger company it is unlikely you would get a genuine Decider on board, the output of the sprint process would go into competition with other priorities.

The book finishes with a summary of the 5 day programme, a shopping list – indicating the exact number of packs of Post-It notes you should provide and same questions and answers. To a degree I like this, these are my type of people but I can imagine for many the level of detail, control will be oppressive.

Sprint is a quick and easy read, it is chatty in style and is littered with little stories from sprints Knapp and his team have taken part in. I’m probably not in a position where I’d be able to implement the sprint programme in its entirety but provides a lot of food for thought, little ways of changing things.

May 27 2019

Book review: Matthew Boulton: Selling What All the World Desires by Shena Mason

matthew_boultonMatthew Boulton: Selling what all the World Desires by Shena Mason is a rather sumptuous book featuring a collection of articles and a catalogue of objects relating to Matthew Boulton, organised by Birmingham City Council on the bicentenary of his death in 2009.

Boulton was famous for his Soho Manufactory built a couple of miles from the centre of modern Birmingham. There he started making “toys”, following in the footsteps of his father. At the time “toys” were small metal objects such as buttons, buckles, watch chains and the like for which Birmingham was famous. Over time he brought a high degree of mechanisation and productionisation to the process.

But “toys” were only the start of his business interests, he soon moved into making higher value objects such as vases, candle holders and tableware made from silver, Sheffield plate (silver plated tin) and ormolu (gold gilded bronze or brass), aiming to supply a growing middle class clientele by producing objects at scale with a high degree of mechanisation to reduce cost. For this he cultivated connections in well-to-do society, and employed the best designers.

I was interested to read the article on Picturing Soho by Val Loggie which talks about how the architected design of the factory was essentially part of Boulton’s marketing strategy. The Soho site drew many visitors, it was a feature of the late Enlightenment that facilities such as these attracted visitors from across Europe and America. Boulton even installed tea rooms and a show room to furnish their needs. Although a continuing concern was the risk of industrial espionage which led ultimately to the curtailment of such visits in the early years of the 19th century.

As part of his silver work he campaigned for Birmingham to have its own Assay Office to hallmark silver goods. Previously silver items needed to go to Chester to be assayed and receive a hallmark which was a lengthy journey, costing money and risking damage to items. Gaining an assay office required an act of parliament for which Boulton lobbied in the face of opposition from London silver and goldsmiths. The London case was damaged when a “secret shopper” investigation showed that most silverware passing through the London assay office was below standard, and furthermore they were caught trying to bribe Boulton’s former employees to speak against him. An assay office was granted to Sheffield in the same act.

Boulton also built a mint at Soho, pretty much fully mechanising the process of producing coinage, trade tokens and decorative medals. This work seems to have been one of his more profitable enterprises. Towards the end of the 18th century the government had not minted new copper coinage for quite some time which caused problems because it was often pennies and tuppences that workers needed to buy essentials. Ultimately Boulton was given the contract to mint a large quantity of copper coinage, and was selling minting machinery around the world.

Finally, there was his work on steam engines with James Watt. Watt invented an improvement to the Newcomen steam engine in use at the time which made it much more efficient, in terms of the amount of coal required to produce the same power. Watt also developed engines that produced reliable rotary motion, essentially for driving factory machinery rather than just pumping water out of mines. In the first instance Watt and Boulton acted as consultants, designing engines for specific customers and buying in parts from various suppliers to construct them. They charged a fraction of the cost saving from reduced coal use, which sounds like it was rather difficult to administer. The engine business, they maintained their income by lobbying parliament to extend their patent. Later they built a foundry at Soho which made all of the parts of the engine.

Actually, there was one more thing, Watt and Boulton produced a system for mechanical reproduction of letters and paintings.

Boulton’s businesses were continued after his death by his son, and the son of the James Watt. The silver plate company and foundry lasted longest but by the end of the 19th century they were gone. The Soho Manufactory made it to the dawn of photography but was demolished in 1863. Boulton’s Soho House remains on the site but the rest of the works, and parkland in which they sat have been overtaken by housing. 

In some ways he was the metalworking equivalent of Josiah Wedgewood with whom he was well-acquainted through there membership of The Lunar Society, you can read more about them in Jenny Uglow’s The Lunar Men. He was also interested in the science of the time.

Many of Boulton’s ventures seem to have been of limited commercial value, they often required significant investment which he raised via loans, and revenue typically fell below expectations.

This is a beautiful book, the articles cover the key parts of Boulton’s work at Soho but it is not a biography. The catalogue, which makes up half the book is worth reading too – the photographs are gorgeous and there are descriptive text boxes which explain the wider context of the objects.

May 12 2019

Book review: Lost in Math by Sabine Hossenfelder

lost_in_mathIt is physics for my next read, although my background is in physics and chemistry I don’t read much physics. Lost in Math by Sabine Hossenfelder is a journey through modern fundamental physics and how it has lost its way over the last few years in a quest for beauty rather than relevance.

My background is actually in a different part of physics, the physics of squishy things like plastics, proteins and plants. I stopped being an academic physicist nearly twenty years ago but even at that time there was a definite feeling that some area of physics felt themselves superior to others. Experimental soft matter physicists, like myself, were at the bottom of the pile.

This background does mean that I’ve talked to actually string theorists about string theory, and been intrigued that when you asked them where the extra (20 or so) dimensions the theory requires were the fall back answer was always “curled up very small” – they were unable to express it differently. 

The problem in fundamental physics is that theory is running well ahead of what can be experimentally confirmed. The Higgs boson found at CERN in 2012 was predicted in the early sixties, some 50 years previously. Gravitational waves, first observed in 2016, were predicted by Einstein 100 years previously. Theories today are generating hypotheses which may never be experimentally accessible, on current technology they require accelerators the size of galaxies and and Jupiter sized detectors.

With theory running so far ahead of experiment, how does one decide whether a theory is correct, an accurate model of the universe? The answer of choice for a number of years has been beauty, and naturalness. Distinctly unphysical concepts. Defining beauty is a difficult business, in physics as well as elsewhere. For physicists it means beautiful maths. I wonder whether there is a a link with music here, the Westerners have trained their ears to find particular note combinations harmonious or beautiful but in other traditions different combinations are considered beautiful. Naturalness is a related idea, which has a technical meaning, naturalness abhors taking one very large number from another very large number to leave a number of just the right size. What are the chances of that happening?

Hossenfelder embarks on a world tour to address these issues, talking to scientists across the US and Europe. The style of her writing is journalistic and confessional. This is refreshing to see in a book about physics.

An interesting point raised is that the point of a Kuhnian revolution is as much that our perception of beauty shifts when there is a paradigm shift, as anything else.

The pain for particle physicists is that there is this zoo of 25 particles from which all the matter we can see is constructed but they seem so arbitrary, there is no rhyme or reason to their masses or deep reason for their number. Really, particle physicists want an equation from which these features simply appear rather than find themselves in the position of having to set the values of masses and so forth. This is why physicists are physicists and not biologists or chemists. Chemists revel in mess, biologists are even worse.

The hope was that the LHC at CERN would reveal new particles after the Higgs boson, which would confirm that there was something beyond the Standard Model, this would provide some meat for them to gnaw at and the prospect of planning the next big facility to find out more. But so far there has been nothing, leaving particle physics at a loss.

Cosmology is suffering from a similar problem, although the problem in cosmology is linking up general relativity which explains black holes and the like with quantum mechanics. No one really knows what quantum mechanics means, just that it allows you to explain the values measured in certain experiments really well for reasons best not inspected too closely.

It is sometimes thought that scientists collect loads of data and then come up with a theory that explains it all, this hasn’t been the case in physics for a long time. For the best part of the last 400 years physics has been about coming up with plausible theories and checking to see if they are correct.

Hossenfelder finishes with some thoughts on other types of cognitive and social bias, and even provides an appendix of remedies to address them.

Lost in Math has the air of a disenchanted author making a final tour of the topic she loves before leaving for a job in industry, so it is heartening to find Hossenfelder still in fundamental physics. It seems to me that this level of introspection and the personal touch is something that is needed in academic research.

Fortunately for British readers the phrase “lost in math” is scarcely used in the text.

Apr 16 2019

Book review: The Culture Map by Erin Meyer

More work-related reading for this post with The Culture Map by Erin Meyer, it has the lengthy subtitle “Decoding how people think, lead, and get things done across cultures”.

The Culture Map
The Culture Map

Meyer’s thesis is that there are national cultures which can be described by a countries location on a set of eight axes, and managing fruitful international collaborations requires recognition of this fact and an appreciation of where the team members lie on this scale.

The book is divided into eight chapters, each concerning one of the axes. Typically a chapter will start with what one might term an anecdote or case study which introduces an incident which illustrates the wider point of the chapter. These are all very personal and individual, there are names of people and companies, and specific meetings and scenarios. This is followed by a summary table which lists out where different countries fall on this particular axis and then goes on to suggest some strategies to address potential issues in multicultural teams.

The eight axes are:

  • Communicating – is communication high-context (i.e. implicit) or low-context;
  • Evaluating – is negative feedback provided directly or indirectly;
  • Persuading – principles-first or applications-first? To convince someone do you describe a concrete instance (application) or recommendation or start with a theoretical model (principles)?
  • Leading – hierarchical or egalitarian;
  • Deciding – are decisions made consensually or top-down?
  • Trusting – is trust based on tasks (i.e. work successfully completed) or relationships (sharing meals and drinks);
  • Disagreeing – is disagreement confrontational or non-confrontational;
  • Scheduling – is scheduling linear-time (i.e. on time) or flexible-time?

In most cases the themes are considered in isolation but in a couple of cases there are interactions. For example, between communication styles (high and low context) and negative feedback styles (direct and indirect). The US, and to some degree UK and Canada, are unusual in that they favour low-context, explicit communication but indirect negative feedback. The second case is in the disagreeing style (confrontational or non-confrontational) where a ninth axes is slipped in: emotional expressiveness.

As someone with a background in the physical sciences this type of of book can be a bit challenging. Physical scientists expect theoretical models, such as the one presented here, to represent an underlying physical truth. The model is therefore, crudely, right or wrong. Outside the physical sciences a model can be something else: a framework for exploration and discussion. That’s to say the important thing is not the “correctness” of a model but the opportunity it presents in framing discussions. I suspect this makes us principles-first on the persuading axis.

In this case the physical scientist in my wants to argue about whether there really are 8 axes or should it be fewer (or more) and how well-established is the evidence for each of these axes. For some axes Meyer cites academic work in support. She also provides some rationalisation for where countries fall on an axes on the basis of history or prevalent religion.

The book presents itself as a manual for working between cultures but I wondered from the start whether it was more generally applicable. Individual styles vary within a national culture, if I look at my approach to timekeeping then I fall on the positively Germanic end of the scale, whilst other English people I work with have a much more Italian view of timekeeping. Arguably software developers as a group are on the “low context” end of the communication scale, computers are pretty much the definition of low context communicators – everything is absolutely explicit.

Meyer does touch on this idea briefly at the beginning of the book, talking about how the national scores on a scale represent the average across the distribution of individuals’ scores for a nation but doesn’t really pick it up as an idea.

Some themes arise in these solutions, the first of which is that recognising difference is half the battle. The second is about being explicit about how you will handle areas of potential misunderstanding. Finally, there is a warning about not trying too much to ape characteristics that are not your own. For example, if you come from a culture where criticism is typically indirect, don’t go all out to be direct in your criticism because it really is possible to go too far and you won’t be a good judge of what “too far” is.

I’ve noted when reading books on marketing that the style they use has a distinct marketing air, and I wonder whether the same is true for this book. Are the anecdotes about dinner to appeal to our relationship-trust side, and the summary tables our task-based trust side?

This is really a book which I wish I’d read long ago, in part because I’ve worked in international teams as an academic and commercially in both small and large companies. But also because I see in this book as a guide to working with people more generally, even those in the same culture.

Apr 08 2019

Book review: Empires of Knowledge by Paula Findlen

empires_of_knowledgeMy next review is on Empires of Knowledge: Scientific Networks in the Early Modern World edited by Paula Findlen. Here I find myself venturing a little further into academic history of science than I am entirely comfortable with!

Empires of Knowledge is a collection of essays. Its focus is on networks, and it was stimulated by Stanford’s project on mapping the Republic of Letters. The introduction cites Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis, inspiration for the Royal Society but Findlen focuses on the network which brings the knowledge of the world to Bensalem (the location of this fictional Atlantis).

The first chapter is by Robert Morrison, entitled A scholarly intermediary between the Ottoman Empire and Renaissance Europe. It concerns Copernicus and how he potentially was exposed to Arab astronomers whilst at Padua University. More widely it talks about diffusion mechanisms from the Ottoman Empire through Jewish intermediaries to Europe. I felt it could have done with some lists of actors, and network diagrams. I suspect this is why I’m not a historian.

The second chapter is by Findlen and concerns the Jesuits and their network starting in about mid-16th century. The Jesuits saw scientific knowledge as a supplement to their missionary work. This worked two ways, sharing knowledge from Western Europe to the far flung places they visited was a benefit in their missionary work but they also saw collecting new scientific knowledge and bringing back to Rome as important too. The chapter also talks about some of the travails of trying to coordinate observations across large distances with sometimes inexpert collaborators. The simple passage of a letter from Japan to Europe could take 3 or 4 years. “Scientists” outside the Jesuits saw the potential of this organisation for gathering knowledge. It struck me that the Jesuits rose before New Atlantis was written and before the Royal Society and the Academie des Science in France were founded, these could be seen as secular equivalents.

The third chapter continues the Jesuit theme discussing the Ignatian Tree by Marcelo Aranda, an illustration in Athanasius Kircher’s book “The Great Art of Light and Shadow” which showed the 466 missions of the Jesuit church in 1646 as a tree. Also included were sundials which showed their location as determined by lunar eclipse measurements – a method for finding the longitude but only relevant for fixed locations. Determining the date of Easter was an astronomical problem which had been partly resolved by reform of the calendar but in the 17th century there was some risk of celebrating on the wrong day due to the effect of time zones.

Next up is a chapter by Carol Pal on Samuel Hartlib, called The Early Modern Information Factory: How Samuel Hartlib turned correspondence into knowledge. Hartlib was active in the years just before the Royal Society was founded and kept an expansive correspondence network. He republished within that network but also made work available in print (sometimes to the ire of his correspondents). He left approximately 5000 letters in his archive currently at the University of Sheffield and it is likely that amount is doubled if letters from him in other archives are considered. This seems to be typical of the size of the correspondence of such actors. In a time before scientific journals were published his imprimatur was seen as a sign of quality. The chapter also discusses how such men usually employed scribes to keep up with the level of correspondence, in the absence of photocopiers or word processors.

There’s a certain repetitiveness in my paragraphs, this next one is on the chapter by Iordan Avramov on “Letters and questionnaires: The correspondence of Henry Oldenburg and the early Royal Society of London’s Inquiries for Natural History”! Inquiries for Natural History were essentially surveys containing questions on all manner of topics sent out to correspondents. These were used to elicit information, their consistency allowed for information to be verified and monitored over time, and their very existence provided correspondents with a framework in which to reply – they were not faced with a blank page. The Inquiries also had the function of expanding Oldenburg’s network. He could send out a questionnaire to one of his existing correspondents and ask that they forward it on to someone else if they could not reply.

Ingenuous investigators by Ivano Dal Prete, a vignette on the activities of Antonio Vallisneri (1661-1730) who was a member of the Republic of Letters but corresponded mainly with local contacts in Northern Italy. The point Dal Prete is making here is that although distant lands get the headlines, the Republic of Letters was fractal, what was visible on a global scale was also visible locally. In the late 17th century even Europe was to some degree terra incognita. Del Prate reports that Vallisneri never visited a local (17 miles away) fossil location, the travel was hard in the mountainous area and the natives were hostile.

Corresponding in war and peace by Elise Lipkowitz covers the communications of Joseph Banks and Charles Blagdon during the Peace of Amiens in 1812/13, a brief period in which France and England were not fully at war. This includes some numerical work the volume of transactions. The Peace was fairly tense and the character of the correspondence is cagey compared to earlier periods. Much of the correspondence is between Banks and Blagdon, who was in Paris for the whole of the Peace.

Giant bones and the Taunton stone by Lydia Barnett is about the reception in London by the Royal Society of communications from Cotton Mather in 1712 regarding fossil bones, now believed to be of mastadons, found in New York state and the “Taunton Stone” an inscribed stone discovered in Massachusetts. Mather spent much space in his reports analysing the fossils to a cool reception by the Royal Society – they were much more interested in getting hold of the specimens for their own inspection and interpretation. The Taunton Stone, on which Mather had written much less, raised much more interest. Illustrations (although poor) allowed them to make their own interpretations, and gave access to a history of North America. This was to be used to rationalise the colonization of the area, and the persecution of the native Americans.

The tarot of Yu the great by Alexander Statman reports on investigations into China as the source of all ancient knowledge following an appreciation of the length of its recorded history.

Spaces of circulation and empires of knowledge by Kapil Raj talks about the importance of local knowledge, and local experts in India. Both in William Jones work on comparative linguistics and also James Rennell’s mapping of India. Raj prefers to talk about “spaces of circulation” rather than networks. This seems to be based on an assumption that links in a network must either exist or not exist, my more mathematical view of networks is that links can have weights which may indicate distance or frequency of contact, or any number of attributes.

Recentering centres of calculation by Matthew Sargent continues this theme with a discussion of Van Rheede’s Hortus Malabaricus, a volume on the plants of the Far East. It highlights the varied loci of activity, the book was written mainly in the Far East but published in Amsterdam. Plant samples, and drawings of plants could circulate, travelling the networks of knowledge, without carrying with them the context in which they were collected or the native uses of a plant.

The Atlantic World Medical Complex by Londa Schiebinger traces the path of “bois fer” in a treatment for yaws, a tropical infection. The story brings together medicine as practised in Europe, Africa and the Americas and the difficulties in tracing the contributions made by slaves and native Americans given their position. It also highlights how difficult it can be to be sure of the identity of plants such as “bois fer” at such great separation in time – particularly when the participants at the time were not clear.  

The final chapter is Semedo’s Sixteen Secrets by Benjamin Breen, this refers to the medical works of João Curvo Semedo (1635-1719), a Portuguese physician. He collected the elements of medical preparations from around the world in particular those areas which had been under Portuguese writings. The interesting side to his writing is that although much of the material he recommended was fro outside Europe, the authorities he cited for their use were Western European.  

The book finishes with epilogues by three different authors who do something similar to what I have done here. The format of the book, a set of 20 page chapters, helped me along. Each presents a single thesis, and if I didn’t get along with the author’s style the next chapter came up soon enough. I’m glad I read it but I’m going for something a bit easier next!

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