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It’s no secret that I’m a big proponent of e-books. I love my Kindle for all sorts of predictable reasons. It’s convenient, it lets me carry lots of books around with little weight, I can preview things and so on. By now, the litany of Kindle virtues is probably familiar to much of the Internet.

Image via Stock.xchngHowever, something’s been bugging me lately, and it’s taken a while to put my finger on it. Certainly, there are some standard complaints with the Kindle that are as familiar as its praises (DRM! No Sharing! Stupid Pricing!) but I’ve made my peace with all of those, at least for the time being. No, this is something else.

The problem, so to speak, is one of convenience. My kindle goes in my bag along with my laptop or ipad, and if I forget it, I can just as easily swap to another device to pick up on my reading. The net result is that I swim in a sea of ambient books, and that seems like it should be a wonderful thing. If I have a few minutes free, I can just read whatever’s on mind, right?

That’s the theory, but the reality is that with all the devices I have, I usually have something else on hand better suited to filling 5 minutes, whether it’s a stupid game or just reading something shorter form, like a blog entry or my instapaper queue. When I was younger and could only carry a book with me, that book was the thing I would turn to. Now I carry an entire suite of things, and my options are not so narrow.

By itself, this is not so bad. I’m not going to beat myself up over reading a little bit less just because things used to be different. Unfortunately, there’s also a problem revealed by turning this on its head – just as I am surrounded by ambient books, I’m also surrounded by ambient everything else. Reading is no longer a discrete task – it’s something I can tab into and out of like an app on my desktop.

That unexpected downside of convenience hits me hard, since it means that I find less and less time to just sit down and read, because if I’m doing that, why not also check twitter? And email? And maybe a few blogs? Intellectually, I know that multitasking is a sucker’s bet, but practically, I find it creeps up on me when I’m not looking.

Is there a solution to this other than just being aware of it? I’m not sure. There’s a good argument that maybe this is the real reason to swap back to paper books from time to time, explicitly because they’re less convenient. I don’t think i could go back full time – the benefits of the Kindle are still there and still profound – but perhaps an occasional exception would help remind me of what I’m missing.

Tools and Anger

So, Merlin Mann snapped.

This is kind of a big deal because Mann is one of the big thinkers in productivity on the web, and has been instrumental in helping a lot of people (including me) help get a grasp on things like Getting Things Done. His Blog, 43folders, is part of my regular reading rotation. He’s had enough good, important things to say that have influenced my thinking that I’m writing about the bad one solely to inoculate myself against it. Writing makes it easier for me to be philosophical about it rather than worked up.

This actually began with a previous post over on his personal site that was a not-so-subtle mocking of distraction free writing software like Writeroom, Writemonkey and such. I suspect it was inspired by IA Writer‘s feature that hides all the text except that which you’re working on (which is kind of silly, but the app’s pretty good otherwise). It was a nice bit of mockery and I walked away smiling and shaking my head and thinking “Man, Merlin hates those apps.”

Now, its worth noting that I love those apps, and most of the writing I get done is in those sorts of programs. It’s the right tool for me. But I’m OK with it not being the right tool for everyone. Compared to the nonsense I’ve had to field for using Moleskine notebooks, this is small potatoes.

Anyway, that post lead to this one, a fairly long, sustained explosion about the critical problem with any and all productivity tools and methods, which can be summarized as follows: Any tool that might help you get more done can also be used to waste time pretending to get things done.

We’re all familiar with this phenomena – you see it when you get a spiffy new day planner or piece of todo software and then spend more time using your new tool than you do actually getting anything done. You see it when someone starts on a new methodology (like GTD) and spends all their time tuning their system rather than working. You see it when someone spends a hundred bucks on a notebook and folio and three hundred dollars on a pen and proceeds to fuss about ink rather than writing. You see it when someone buys a two-thousand dollar camera and spends all their time fiddling with buttons and settings and bags rather than going an taking pictures.

This is both insidious and frustrating. It’s insidious because the person doing this feels busy. They’re engaging the tool, so they don’t realize they’re not engaging the work. It’s frustrating because the problem does not correlate directly with the tools or methods. In someone else’s hands, that tool or method may be exactly the thing they need to do the job, and that’s the rub. Whatever your frustration with how people use the tools, if you focus on on that you will encounter a group of people who will stand up and say “this tool works for me.”

And that’s why Mann’s explosion was inevitable, but still kind of problematic. There’s no way to get as deep in productivity as he is without getting profoundly frustrated with people who turn to the tools rather than the work. Sooner or later you’re going to see some tool that is so utterly useless to you that you’re just going to snap and make it clear that this tool is emblematic of all your frustrations and annoyances at how people are doing it wrong.

So, I don’t blame him for that. But that the blunt instrument he’s waving around is a tool I get a lot of use out of kind of makes it problematic to me.

Now, heck, I doubt he intends to come across as if distraction free writing software is really the apex of all that is wrong in productivity. Ask him on any other day and I suspect you’ll find that he’s fine with the tool so long as people use it rather than use it to not do things. Similarly, if you ask him another day, I think he’s less likely to equate a tool with a failing on the part of the person using it. But today? Today he snapped.

And it’s ok. Everyone reaches that point sooner or later, and Mann has earned more than enough good credit to make up for it. But I admit I’m just going to sort of sidle past this one and let it fall to the wayside of time. And that’s maybe a shame. There are good, salient points mixed in with the rage, and some part of me says its worth hanging on to it just for those.

But one other thing I’ve learned from real productivity is this – no matter how useful something is, if it hurts you every time you pick it up, that’s probably not the tool you want.

A Bucket of Books

When I buy a book, I am effectively buying water (the content) and a bucket (the actual book, with all it entails). I am taught that most of the value is in the bucket, because that’s what pricing is keyed off of. Hard vs. Softcover establishes the price, not the quality of the content. I take no price guidance from things I might reasonably take as indicators of quality, like the author. So right off the bat, the bucket industry has trained me that the price of water is low, maybe even free. They don’t care though, because they make their money on buckets.

To muddle things further, I have been taught by living in a civilized society that it is entirely reasonable for me to drink the water for free as long as I don’t steal the bucket. That is, once I own a book, i can resell it or give it away. If I don’t own the book I can read it for free by borrowing it from a friend or from the library, or even just by having it read to me. Once again, I’m taught that the value is in the bucket.

Now, the bucket makers aren’t necessarily happy with this arrangement, but they’re kind of obliged to deal with it. Part of that is social pressure – this freedom is part of the culture of books, and fighting it makes you the bad guy – but another part of it is more cynical. See, every other non-consumable good in society is tied to these rules as well – you can gift and loan tools, jewelry, cars or anything else you can think of. To buck this trend, the bucket makers would have to say “Well, wait a minute, we’re different than these other goods. We have this great water which has value of a different kind” and that’s a problem, because so far the whole model is based on putting value on the buckets, not the water, so they don’t want to upset that cart.

This has worked well for a very long time, and people really love their buckets, but now some crazy guy has gone and invented plumbing. Suddenly I can get my water from the source, and that really screwss things up. The ways in which it messes things up are a whole other conversation, but here’s the bit that interests me.

What happens if, when I want to make a gift of a book, I don’t need to buy a new bucket?

See, I will never feel bad about libraries or gifting read books, at least under the current model, but I also feel it probably hurts creators more than anyone else. But the idea of “gifting” an electronic file really means “giving a duplicate” unless you want to do something particularly cumbersome with it. I can imagine a world where, in the absence of buckets, the cost of that is small enough to pay casually, and goes directly to the creator.

Sure, this upends a lot of assumption. If money goes to the creator directly, he then becomes the person who has to hire all the people who make a book possible rather than them hiring him. That’s a drastic change, so much so that it may seem impossible. But in my gut, I’m wondering if it’s the only possible outcome.

PS – So it’s clear, this is not a “Death to Publishers!” position, merely a “The roles of everyone involved in the book chain are potentially subject to drastic change over the next decade or three”

(This was originally a comment in a discussion of piracy on Chuck Wendig’s blog, but I wanted to pull it out and make it it’s own thing)

Book Buying

I don’t buy books anymore, at least not the way I used to.

I mean, I still buy books. In fact, looking at Amazon I’ve bought 14 books in the past 30 days, not counting ones I’ve gotten for free. Of those, 3 of them were physical books, and the rest were all e-books. I am well and truly converted over to the ebook manner of reading, and there’s no turning back. The real proof of it? Jim Butcher’s Changes came out in this window too. I’m not counting it because I’d pre-ordered, but it’s nicely illustrative.

See, it was one of the books that got caught up in Amazon’s squabble with the publisher, and the kindle version got yanked off shelves (so to speak) shortly before release. Now, Amazon made it right – they sold me the hardcover for the price I’d paid for the ebook, $9.99 – and I’m grateful for that, but here I am a month later, with this book form a series I love by an author I dig which I’ve heard is fantastic, and I haven’t touched it. Why?

Because it is just too much of a pain for me to bother with carrying it around. I always have my kindle. It’s part of my regular kit. And I’ve got four different books that I’m reading at once going on it. It lets me read in strange places at random time. In contrast, for the hardcover I need an uninterrupted block of time at home, something I just don’t have with a rambunctious 15 month-old in the house.

All of which is to say, I am very much the ebook audience these days, and its with that in mind that I want to highlight the three books of the past month that AREN’T electronic, because I think they illustrate something important. See, I still love books, but the kindle has changed how I think about them. There are books I buy because I want the actual book, but there needs to be some reason beyond reading it. If it’s just the content I want, the Kindle does a better job.

Setting aside gifts and books with sentimental value, I think these three books do a good job of illustrating what attributes call for a real book.

The first is Sanjay Patel’s Ramayana: The Divine Loophole. Patel’s a graphics guy from Pixar and the book is, to put it frankly, absolutely beautiful. I saw it on the shelf in Borders and every page was a wonder to behold. It’s possible this book would do well on something with a really nice screen (like an ipad) but for something this lovely, the ability to flip pages and be struck by the images is entirely worth it.

So I’ll buy a book if it’s beautiful.

The next is Headfirst Rails. It’s an instructional book about the Ruby on Rails programming language. The Headfirst series are unique and well regarded because they present the information the reader needs in really engaging and innovative ways. Comparing their books to a random computer textbook is like night and day. They use layout and presentation as a technology, using the book form to its fullest. It is probably readable in electronic form, but it’s so well designed as a book, that would actually seem less efficient.

So I’ll buy a book if it takes advantage of being a book.

The last book was the late Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat Strikes Back. This is a great book and I *really* wanted it, but it wasn’t available as an ebook, and given the circumstances of its production (Snyder died before it went to print) I didn’t feel confident it would be available in any kind of timely manner. So I bought the physical book, and despite it being fantastic, I’ve barely dented it for the same reasons I haven’t read Changes.

So I’ll buy a book if I have no other choice.

I would suggest against publisher’s leaning too heavily on #3 – in most cases there’s a different book I could buy, and I almost certainly will. However, #1 and #2 are hopefully a little bit more informative, and they both have something in common. Both celebrate the book as an object rather than a mere container.

Now, none of this addresses the very real frustrations I have with ebooks – the inability to gift or lend them is a paralyzingly bad element that I tolerate only because they’re still in their infancy – and I understand fully why any of those other problems might keep someone from embracing the ebook. But once you do, it’s hard to go back, and it also makes you appreciate the books that really deserve appreciation all the more.

Vocational Context

In junior high school, I took a lot of shop class. I had to take something in the period. I had no artistic talent to speak of, and enough atavistic sense that home ec was for girls that I spent one period a day doing some mechanical thing or another: Wood shop, metal shop, alternative energy (we made hot dog cookers!), mechanical engineering and so on. It was good, fun stuff and I was really glad I did it.

When I moved on to high school, I set it aside. Rather than being part of the curriculum, shop was is own distant wing of the school, visible only occasionally from Gym or Driver’s ed. It wasn’t shop, it was “Vocational Education” and the kids who went there didn’t overlap much with my world. I was a power-nerd, on track with various honors classes, good tests and mediocre grades. My view of the universe assumed there were various tracks of academic success, and over time I bought into the general idea that somewhere below the lowest academic track was Vo-tech (Vocational/technical education), and I had the general sense that that was where kids ended up rather than dropping out of school. These were “the dumb kids”, troublemakers and smokers, the ones without real futures, unlike me and my honors class compatriots.

Yes, I was a dumb, arrogant, know-nothing snot-nosed brat. I know this. I’m also in the future.

This idea got smacked out of my head one night when I was at an awards ceremony. I’d gotten an NHS nomination (beating out my fellow power nerds, who had only gotten the equivalent of honorable mention) though the award was pretty much just for show since my grades were middling at best. I hung around for the whole ceremony to be polite, even when it came time to hand out the vo-tech awards.

I did not recognize the woman giving out the awards – she might not have even been a teacher at the school, but given my disconnect from vo-tech, who knows – but I remember her twangy accent as she made a point of fully pronouncing “National Vocational Technical Honor Society” every time it came up, never shortening or abbreviating it. I don’t remember much of the specifics of what she said, but it caught me up short all the same. See, for most of the folks at this ceremony, this was a little sideshow, a chance for the not-so-smart kids to be seen on the stage before we could go back to recognizing the best and brightest.

It was clear this woman knew that, and it was clear it made her angry as hell. And not angry because it’s what she did, angry because she was damn proud of these kids up on the stage and what they had done, and it meant less than nothing to most of the people watching. She didn’t rant or anything. She just made a short statement about how these kids deserve respect, and she made sure that no part of the ceremony was rushed or abbreviated. But that pride and anger shone through as clear as day, and it kind of knocked me on my ass.

There are few times in my life when I have so clearly seen what an utter dumbass I’d been. That night pretty well upended my whole perspective on vocational education. I stopped seeing it as a safety net for losers and started recognizing it as something valuable, a path that someone who knows what they’re doing can and should set their feet upon, and know they’re going to get somewhere. Hell, compared to the vague plans that come form a four year degree, it was positively enviable.

I mention all this because it gives a little context for how intensely disappointed I was with the book Shop Class as Soulcraft. I had read the reviews and heard the interviews and I was intensely excited about it. The premise was that there was value in real work, in learning to do and make things with your hands, and that that had been lost and needed to be regained by our society. This resonated really strongly with me, and I had hoped for a book that addressed it.

Instead, I get a book by and about a Doctor of Philosophy who gave up a think tank job to repair motorcycles, and has now written a book for the sole purpose of justifying that decision, and possibly airing a few of his favorite bits of politics. It’s utterly disappointing, and I wrote a review to that effect, but I wanted to get down the rest of my frustration, if only for myself.

Blame it on my (loosely) Catholic upbringing, but I grew up thinking that bad behavior was additive. That is, if you do a bad thing, then do it again, that’s twice as bad as if you’d just done it once. This was supported by my simple understanding of confession and penance, and held up by my equal simple understanding of law enforcement and criminal sentencing. Sure, there was a certain amount of nuance – theft seemed to be judged more on total value than the number of things, for example – but that was the basic model. What’s more, as the more well behaved of my siblings, it seemed like a very fair arrangement to me.

That sense of fairness haunted me well into adulthood without my giving it much thought. I would see people do something that seemed very clearly bad in my eyes, and have other people shrug it off. That was ok, people have different tolerances, but what got me was that they would do it again, or do something comparably bad, and the excited little kid in my brain would want to hump up on top of something and point and say “SEE! SEE! That’s TWICE as bad! Aren’t you appalled?”

But the thing is, people weren’t. The people who were bothered the first time were bothered again, and the people who weren’t bothered the first time just shrugged it off. That just seemed wrong and, perhaps more importantly, unfair. This niggled at the edge of my mind for a long time without ever really crystallizing – it just didn’t come up enough to really merit more than annoyance.

Then the internet came along, and I was deluged by examples of this on a daily basis[1]. This proved the basis for many important moral lessons, but it also laid out the additive fallacy in the starkest of terms. Go to blogs and forums where people are complete jerks and you will quickly discover that they always have a body of people willing to defend them, no matter how obviously rude, insulting or destructive their behavior. Sometimes there’s a clear explanation, like a fierce free speech advocate or just a bigger jerk, but usually it seemed to just be a function of community. Paradoxically it seemed the more often the person was a jerk, the more tolerant their community was of it.

Occasionally, the bad actor might strain tolerance, usually if he’s really machine-gunning the hate, but most often the only way things could change would be if the bad actor took things to the next level, to make his behavior drastically worse, such as by starting to include racist comments in what had heretofore been merely misogynistic remarks. But otherwise? No problem.

It really hurt my heart to acknowledge that if bad behavior is additive, then it suffers from drastic diminishing returns – repeat actions only move the needle up fractionally, and only for as long as memory lasts. If people are willing to be tolerant of the first bad action, then they will probably be tolerant of each subsequent bad action. In fact, these supporters will become so inured to it that when someone else raises it as an issue, the supporter will sincerely wonder why this person is overreacting so strongly.

This is, to be frank, a kind of crappy moral conclusion to reach. At best it suggests a zero tolerance policy of assholes, and while that seems satisfying on paper, it overlooks the simple fact that everyone has the occasional bad day. And, if I’m completely honest with myself, I have to acknowledged that there are a few assholes that I also tolerate in this fashion.

It’s good to be aware of that. Yeah yeah, pop philosophy, blah blah blah. Not very satisfying, but the alternative is that little part of me that still really and truly wants things to be fair, and I;m pretty sure I don’t want to let him out of the box.

1 – In retrospect, I would probably have seen it sooner if I listened to more talk radio.

So Cory Doctorow, who is usually a pretty smart guy, weighed in on cloud computing today. I’m interested in what he has to say, so I absolutely went and checked out his opinion. I was surprised to say the least.

What’s jarring is that his thesis – that cloud computing is so exciting because people think they can make money off it – is pretty fair. I would go so far as to suggest that it’s not even particularly controversial, outside of a few techno-idealists. It’s just that the reasoning and examples that follow are far less about that point and far more about…honestly, I’m not sure. Maybe the man keeping us down or something.

For my two bits, cloud computing is far from any kind of new idea (even if the terminology is newly hip). There has always been a conflict between the idea of doing everything locally with one mighty computer and doing things remotely where there are advantages like redundancy, accessibility and cost. The idea of the “thin client” – a cheap computer that plugged into a more powerful computer to do everything – was a re-emergence of the classic dumb terminal, and it was the next big thing for a while, until computers got cheap enough that it seemed wasteful.

Today, computers have gotten cheaper still, to the point where the average user may well have access to several computers. This is important because it means that for normal human activities, like writing or playing music or playing games, it matters a lot what is on which computer. There are solutions for this – home networks, USB drives and such – but they all have their own limitations. For a user, being able to get to their content from any machine without hassles is the ultimate convenience. There are some ubiquitous examples of this, like gmail and flickr, but it’s possible dropbox is the best better example. I have a free 2 gig account with them, and anything I’m writing gets saved to the local dropbox directory, and gets synced to all the other machines I’ve signed up. If I’m on someone else’s machine, I can access my stuff via the web.

None of this is particularly hardcore. I don’t talk about Amazon or Rackspace and the cloud services they offer here, I’m just talking about things that my mom might use. And that, I think, might be where my opinion ends up differing from Doctorow. He is right about the sheer amount of computer power that can be cheaply bought by the average user, but even he acknowledges that it’s simply more computer than most people need. This simple truth has sold a lot of netbooks and a lot of cheap Dells, and it’s ultimately the flaw in any argument that a cloud service is not as fast or powerful as your computer. Users (excepting a very nerdy segment) don’t measure computing in absolute terms – they need enough power to perform certain tasks, and most of what’s past that point is likely to be lost on them. If remote computing can clear that threshold (and evidence says it can) then it can do the job.

Now, he’s right to be wary of predatory pricing schemas and bad business practices, but I don’t think that’s news, and if nothing else the robustness of the cloud market seems to have successfully driven the entry price to “free” for the average user. And that’s the rub – I think Doctorow’s sense of the average user is a bit more rarefied than mine. If he thinks Amazon’s service is for the average guy, then heck, maybe he’s right. We may already all be too smart to need anything but sftp, our personal linux box and a few scripts. I certainly know people for whom that is true, but their time tends to be worth enough to merit just paying for the service.

But I apparently know many fewer of them than Mister Doctorow.

The Microsoft Store

The Penny Arcade guys have a great post today about the approaching Microsoft Store.  No shock that they find the funny in it, but I was particularily taken by this passage:

On the desktop, and this is unfortunate for them, the only way to make a truly discriminating choice is to purchase a competitor’s product.

That is to say, going with Microsoft is not a choice for most shoppers, it is the absence of a choice.  Or, as they put it in the comic: “Isn’t every store a Microsoft Store?”‘

It is hard not to look at this effort by Microsoft as a slightly petulant swing at the success of the Apple Store.   The ultimate proof will be in what kind of store it turns out to be. The fear is that it will be a computer shop where the bulk of customer choice is between which version of Vista or Windows 7 will provide them the “best experience”.  Like a tiny Best Buy, without the overpriced DVDs.

Even with things which work really well, like the X-Box (which boasts a fantastic online experience and store), how do you translate that into a worthwhile shopping experience?

I’m not optimistic about this effort. I intellectually hold out hope that the guys at Microsoft are smart enough to keep this from being every bad thing one might expect , but I don’t feel it. All the ways to make this smart and workable are too small for Microsoft as a whole.  Maybe the store folks will be given enough leeway to prove me wrong. Maybe.

But all this got me wondering if there was a way to make a Microsoft store any good, and I realized there was.

The paradox that Microsoft will need to overcome is that they have too few choices among their products, and too many choices among all the things that surround them (hardware and software). For a store to be successful, they don’t need to concentrate on creating more choices among their products, they need to find a way to give me fewer choices among other products.  That means they need to either look at hardware or software.  Hardware’s kind of a dead end – competing with Dell is eating their own lunch, and cooperating with them is just redundant.  Software, however, is rich with potential.

If you use Macs, you will sometimes hear Windows users talk about the sheer breadth of software available for the PC, and how that’s a point against Macs.  Mac users laugh this one off because they know the secret – less software means that what there is tends to be better. There are two big  reasons for this. First, most Mac Software has a degree of passion behind it: programmers only develop for the mac because they want to, and that sets a natural bar.   Second, and perhaps more importantly, there are fewer options, so finding the good ones is easier.

Microsoft fans may be experiencing a knee jerk now at the assertion that Mac software is better than Windows, and that is clearly Very Wrong Indeed, so let me explain the contrast.  There is a lot more software available for Windows than there is for the Mac, and that has a profound impact on the quality of the user experience. Assume the quality of product is exactly the same, and the distribution of quality is roughly equal, finding a really good piece of software –  the kind you get excited about, something like Scrivener or Omnigraffle –  is like finding a needle in a haystack. The trick is that the Mac haystack is much, much smaller.   More is not necessarily better in this case – even if the Mac software is generally better, there will still be more good windows software just out of pure volume, but you can go nuts trying to find it.

The other factor of quality is that the most exciting Mac software comes from smaller companies. The position of Adobe Creative Suite and Microsoft Office are pretty well cemented in the universe, and the really interesting stuff comes from people who aren’t trying for a piece of that pie, and instead are looking to fill some other niche. These are the companies who make the most exciting stuff, but they are the hardest to differentiate from the noise around them in the PC world.

This is where a Microsoft store could really shine. Rather than offering me the same software I can find at Best Buy,  Micro Center, Frys, Staples or Amazon, why not offer me the best software out there?  Why not offer the kind of software that is so good and useful that windows users can be smug rather than apologetic? For those companies and individuals putting out electronic product, use some of that Microsoft muscle to help them put physical media on the shelves. Be picky as hell, limit shelf space to only those programs that create enthusiasm, and suddenly there’s something to buy.

That’s a store I’d shop at.

(And for the naysayers – that software really is out there. The fact that you haven’t seen it is mostly just an illustration of the underlying problem. )

The Livescribe Pulse is pretty much one of the most brilliant devices of recent history. The ability to have your writing captured to a computer without the pain of weird clipboard attachments is a really exciting technology for people who like writing longhand (like, say, me).
livescribe.jpg

Unfortunately, the first generation pen is a monster. Not to say it doesn’t work, but the thing is huge. It’s like writing with a big, fat marker, and all the technology in the world can’t make it appealing for me to write with. I’ve been quietly hoping for their success so that they can eventually produce a second generation pen that’s a little more manageable.

Thankfully, all signs point to things going well. Target carries them, which is great. Plus, one of the first paper products they released were moleskine knockoffs, which shows a great understanding of their target audience.

I was at Target the other day and discovered that they’ve clinched it. They seemed to have entered into a partnership with paperblanks, the makers of the distinctive notebooks with the magnetic closures. They don’t even have them up on the website yet, but they were stacked neatly under the pens. It’s a small thing to be excited about, but it’s the sort of convergence I’m really happy to see.

Paper Beats Rock


I am still wrestling with my opinion of The Age of the Unthinkable: Why the New World Disorder Constantly Surprises Us And What We Can Do About It by Joshua Cooper Ramo. It is both a very good and a very annoying book.

To explain that contradiction, I’m going to talk a little bit about Clausewitz and Jomini. They’re a pair of 19th century military writers, and some of the most influential military thinkers of all time. I do them a great disservice in simplifying their work here, but they are iconic of a division in military thinking which is mirrored in most other sorts of thinking. Clausewitz argued that the way to win a war was through overwhelming force, applied unrelentingly at your enemy’s weakest point. In contrast. Jomini argued for winning a war by fighting smarter – strike at your enemies’ supply lines, fight only when you can win, pick your battles and in doing so you can overcome a vastly superior force.

This actually got played out very interestingly in the US civil war, which was fought in a pretty Jominian fashion form the outset, which went badly for the north because Robert E. Lee and his generals were much, much better at it than the union generals. Grant’s victory came in large part because of a shift to Clausewitzian tactics, and a willingness to grind out the fight with the south to its brutal conclusion.

This conflict, between force and calculation, has been with us for most of history. George Eliot called it the dirk versus the cudgel, and I’ll use those terms now if only because I’m tired of trying to spell Clausewitz. It shows up in fascinating places in military history (look up Thomas Jefferson’s idea of a navy sometime), as recently as with the modern American fascination with air power. Like the perpetual cycle of offense vs. defense, the dirk and the cudgel rise and fall in relationship to one another, but this pattern is a bit more interesting because of its predictability.

Put simply – intellectuals and engineers love the dirk. They love its elegance and its emphasis on knowledge, understanding and intellect. They are constantly certain that the cudgel is just going to up and go the way of the dinosaur any time now because the dirk is just so much more elegant. And they are always surprised when someone shows up and takes a cudgel to the side of their head (or, more properly, the heads of the guys they’ve sent to fight for them).

On a lot of levels, Age of the Unthinkable is a predictable tract on the death of the cudgel, written in a manner better suited to an ambitious grad student than a veteran of the world stage. It is so enamored with flexibility and resilience that it either dismisses or merely pays lip service to strength and determination, and that is what keeps it from being great. By the end there is a nod to the idea that we need both to thrive, but it is so absent from the rest of the book as to cut it off at the knees.

Worse, it falls right into the worst sort of traps. Have you seen Rising Sun? Recently? It was a kind of fun action flick when it came out, but nowadays it’s running theme of JAPANESE SUPERMEN WILL RULE US ALL is almost comical to behold. Ramo seems to feel the same way about the Chinese, and he does things like quote Sun Tzu in ways that might have been novel and interesting 20 years ago, but are just tired now.

And that’s sort of the rub. 20 years ago, this would have been a brilliant book. Earth-shakingly brilliant. But now, it’s full of insights that are going to be trite to anyone who has read any decent non fiction (or good science fiction) in the past decade or so.

BUT

The thing that keeps me from dismissing this book entirely is that they are good and legitimate insights, even if some of the analysis (and writing) around them is flawed, and it’s possible that there are people they would be new for. So if you’re a reader who is actually baffled by the rate of change in the world, and if you don’t understand why planning and response might make for a more robust defense than barriers or why an organizations ability to learn is important, then this book is a great primer for such things. It’s probably a great read for high school freshmen, for example.

On a purely practical level, the first chapter can be skipped, as can most of the second. If you’re annoyed by gimmicky writing, expect to get annoyed early and often – he overuses narrative tricks like the reveal pretty much every chapter.  For all my cycnicsm about this, if you aren’t a regular reader of non-fiction or science fiction, this may be an interesting read.  If you are then this will likely provide a few interesting anecdotes, but little in the way of revelation.

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