El Cheapo Book Review: The Change Function

A few weeks ago I had a few extra quid stinking up my bank account and the Australian dollar was looking well-fed and happy. So I splurged on a few books at Amazon, including one at the bargain price of about US$6.

That book is The Change Function by Pip Coburn. In brief, my review is this: keep your $6.

Essentially Coburn took a widely-read article published in a business magazine and padded it out into a 213-page book.

Maddening Bits

At first I was merely annoyed by the typography and layout. Coburn seems to have embraced the school of thought that writers should randomly bold different words in their text, apparently because this aids comprehension. He also likes to ask himself questions in a very cliched fashion. Is it annoying? Yes. Does he do it persistently? Yep. Does it improve his arguments in any way, shape or form? Not a chance.

This style of writing-by-numbers drives me insane; it’s a plague unleashed on the world by the unholy confluence of tips given to lazy journalists and the urge to sponge readership from the impatient morons infesting Digg.

Coburn also pads out with quote after vaguely-related quote. I can only suspect he was being paid by the word or the page, because the whole book is liberally littered with the damn things. I don’t mind a well-chosen epigraph or two, but by god there has to be some sense of proportion.

Incorrect Bits

Coburn makes a number of quite glaring mistakes of fact. For example:

This is the reverse of the illogical ad hominem argument. An ad hominem argument is one that follows this supposition: If “Jim” thought of the idea, it is a bad one, because Jim is “bad”. Here, if Bernard Schwartz thinks it is a good idea, it must be, because Bernard is “good”. — p 66

No. An ad hominem is a direct attack on the arguer without relevance to the argument 11. Update: Though see the comments thread for argument on whether I got this right []. What he described is the fallacy of ad verecundiam — argument from authority.

And this historical howler:

… even as Apple’s destiny appeared locked into third-tier status and Microsoft was bailing them out. — p 60

Microsoft never did any such thing. They bought $150 million of non-voting Apple shares in 1997 as part of a complex deal including undertakings from Apple about default software, patent cases in dispute and the like. At the time Apple had billions in cash and a larger market capitalisation than McDonalds.

Some failures he simply misdiagnoses. For example, he talks about the death of the Alpha chip family. This chip family was, for quite some time, easily the fastest in the world, by a generous margin. He argues that the Alpha failed because the cost of adoption was too high and the advantages too few. In fact Compaq killed the Alpha because Carly Fiorina decided that doing the same thing as everybody else (Windows on Intel) was a swell strategy for improving profit margins. Or rather, the Alpha was killed by an Intel press release about the Itanium, which has never performed very well.

Here’s one of my favourite quotes, though:

The technology community fell hard for the concept of electronic business-to-business exchanges … –p 99

What? Technologists (who are the poor, misguided fools of the entire book) find nothing more tedious than “enterprise” software. Really. It’s the next worst thing to being an accountant, without the well-trod pathway into upper management and board sinecure. B2B was a buzzword invented by people like Coburn to convince other people like Coburn to invest money in companies run by people like Coburn to sell expensive rubbish to other companies — also run by people like Coburn. Somewhere along the way, a journalist-analyst type like Coburn churns out a dozen articles on the new-new thing. Technologists are, if anything, making jokes about the latest buzzword for the whole period.

Speaking of Coburn and the Technologists

Coburn really does have a bone to pick with we nerds — we ‘Technologists’. He talks about us finding technology easy; and he’s right. He says technologists often favour features over simplicity; and he’s right. But he also arrogantly talks about Earthlings through the whole thing, as if technologists were aliens. And, unsurprisingly, completely misses the point of Clarke’s Third Law of Technology.

It transpires that Coburn has an MBA from Harvard rival Wharton. Or, more accurately, he is an MBA from Wharton — business schools seem to indoctrinate, not teach — since he accepts any fuzzy idiocy and feelgood pseudoscientific quote but still considers himself to be a hard-headed businessman. Unlike those pesky alien technologists.

What is the damn change function, anyhow?

Here, let me save you $6.

Coburn says that a new technology or product solves a ‘crisis’ — out here in orbit around the Earth we technologists call it ‘fulfilling a requirement’. And a new technology has a perceived pain of adoption. We call it ‘cost’. If the benefit outweighs the cost, then the technology succeeds.

ie, if the expected benefit outweighs the cost for most users, it will succeed.

Amazing! Earth-shattering! Orbit-shaking! Someone resurrect Adam Smith and make him cry. So unexpected!

I mean there’s a bit of a fluff, but that’s really the whole show.

I bought this book hoping for a more rigorous, systematic treatment. I knew the basic thesis, it’s mentioned in reviews and on Amazon. But I expected some sort of checklist, or table of issues, or perhaps some hard quantitative research. Maybe some stuff on psychological biases or somesuch. Such a list or framework would be extremely handy for people developing new technologies, or those who have a technology they’d like to bring to market. But you won’t find it in Coburn’s book in any useful form. Or much else of any value, for that matter.

Save your $6. Buy a sandwich and a milkshake instead.

This entry was posted in Business, IT and Internet, Print media, Review. Bookmark the permalink.

25 Responses to El Cheapo Book Review: The Change Function

  1. Mark U says:

    What is happening here at Club Troppo? In the 18 days since 16 August there have been only 17 posts from 6 different authors. Overall, these posts have been relatively light on the “politics, economics and the law” referred to in the banner. And Missing Link Daily, which went on holiday in early July, with a promise to return on 21 July, has disappeared without trace.

    Where else can I go to get a “radical centrist” perspective more often?

  2. JM says:

    “And Missing Link Daily, …. has disappeared without trace.”

    Agree. MLD used to drive most of my interest in this site – I got a lot of pointers to things I otherwise didn’t see.

    Bring it back.

  3. gilmae says:

    No. An ad hominem is a direct attack on the arguer without relevance to the argument.

    Isn’t it both? The dismissal of Jim’s argument has nothing to do with what Jim says, it is based on Jim being a ‘bad’ person. So Jim’s argument is dismissed by attacking Jim. And then because Bernard is deemed good, his argument must be good regardless of its actual merits. Ad hominem and ad verecundiam used in turn to attack and defend two distinct arguments.

  4. Jacques Chester says:

    Not quite — ad hominem is essentially irrelevant abuse. It’s a subclass of the red herring fallacy.

    That link takes you to the Taxonomy of Logical Fallacies page, my favourite resource for this sort of stuff.

  5. gilmae says:

    An Abusive Ad Hominem occurs when an attack on the character or other irrelevant personal qualities of the oppositionsuch as appearanceis offered as evidence against her position.

    Sounds pretty much like “If ‘Jim’ thought of the idea, it is a bad one, because Jim is ‘bad'”.

  6. FDB says:

    Ad hominem and ad verecundiam aren’t strictly opposites.

    Ad hominem is all about aspects of someone’s character or life’s work or circumstances which have nothing to do with the argument or subject matter at hand. “Jim is Italian, and his cousin fucks donkeys, therefore he’s wrong about this software”. I’m not sure the reverse of this has a name, but it would run “Bernard is like, so hawt right now and can bench-press 250kg, therefore he’s right about this software”.

    Ad verecundiam is much less of a fallacy. “Bernard has always been right about software before, therefore he’s right this time”. And the obvious inversion for Jim, which again I don’t think really has a name.

  7. Jacques Chester says:

    I usually think of it as being in the form “Jim is bad and so is Jim’s idea”.

  8. FDB says:

    Correction – they are equally fallacious, but the second family leads more often to correct conclusions.

  9. David says:

    Jacques, is the book of a suitable thickness to prop up a wonky table, or elevate a monitor to the correct height? At least then you’ll get some return on your $6 investment.

  10. Chris Lloyd says:

    Mark, You can always go and re-start the “Worst piece of research…” thread. And Jacques. Next time tell us what you really think.

  11. FDB says:

    Good point David.

    What wouldn’t I do for a book I knew I’d never read, of roughly 220 pages (Penguin Classics stock). I lost one of the feet from one of my turntables last weekend, but seem only to own books I don’t hate.

  12. Jacques Chester says:

    David: it’s a slim little volume so it would be suitable for propping duties.

    Chris: I’ll try not be so emollient next time.

  13. mister zee says:

    Maybe Chris gets his emoluments by the emollient too, just without the Wharton waffle ;)

  14. Melaleuca says:

    “Where else can I go to get a radical centrist perspective more often?”

    Well if you prefer quantity over quality you can always check out this site: http://larvatusprodeo.net/

    But Rob Merkel is probably the only centrist left in that particular stable.

  15. Liam says:

    I’ve got a book like that, the perfect size and shape to prop a shelf. It’s L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics, and fuck knows where it came from: books like that propagate parthenogenetically the second turn your back.
    Ad hominem/feminam doesn’t have to be irrelevant, Jacques. Quite the contrary, adhom can be exceedingly relevant, biting and sometimes funny, it’s only the separation from the actual argument at hand which characterises it. For instance:

    Argument: This development is good for the community and appropriate for the area.

    Ad Hom Response: Didn’t the developer pay megabucks in campaign donations to you?

    Ad hominem/feminam: the choice argument of both the very ill-informed and the very well-informed.

  16. Piscodorus says:

    Ad hominem/feminam: the choice argument of both the very ill-informed and the very well-informed.

    Argumentum ad grammaticam ad nauseam: ad feminam is the choyce expression of the redundantly neo-illogical.

  17. FDB says:

    I reserve ad feminam for the particular case of dismissing someone’s argument because she’s a woman.

    So it ain’t all that useless Terwilleger.

  18. That’s an ad hominem argument, Efdibus.

  19. Liam says:

    redundantly neo-illogical

    Suggest a gender-neutral latin pronoun, Capitonis Maxiumus, and I’ll use it.

  20. Ad hominem IS gender neutral; “homo” in the context means person. The latin word used for a person of the testicl

  21. Liam says:

    I’ll accept the correction and acknowledge my pwnage.
    I also acknowledge your cracking neologism testiclé which I intend to use, if possible, on the next official form I have to fill out.

  22. Not too fast, berrayboy – I’m not taking the credit for that.

  23. Liam says:

    Well, take credit at least for your instruction, which is as always, up with the best of education standards.

  24. Liam says:

    It’s been fun, sideshow, but goodbye is such a sad word

Comments are closed.