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.
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.
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.