Sunday, January 27, 2013

Review: Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell (2008)
[Photo courtesy of]

Writing about "outliers" (above-average people who somehow achieve some level of greatness), Malcolm Gladwell takes a fresh look at the subject of success that proves his own outlier status as someone who sees the world differently than those who came before him. 

He's not the first writer to write about success and the secret to what makes great people great, but he is the best I have read and certainly the most honest. 

Outliers is not a debunking as much as it's a demystifying; it's not a "myth of success" type of book. Yes, Gladwell acknowledges that successful people have certain qualities (passion, drive, perseverance) that give them a good chance at accomplishing things in life, but his main point is that they owe as much if not more to their particular circumstances. 

Luck, sure, but birth and history and the legacy of the things that came before them over which they could not possibly have any influence are what pave the path to greatness for these people.

Gladwell's main purpose seems to be to dispel the magical aura of success caused by our society's obsession with individualism. Americans tend to assume that successful people have some genius that is unique to them, and that is what makes them great. By looking at some specific riveting case studies (Bill Gates, Canadian hockey players), he makes it clear that intangible individual genius is simply not the case.

Most interestingly, he is candid about the heights he has reached in his career as a writer and 'thought leader', if there is such a thing, noting that he is the beneficiary of a lineage and lucky circumstances that brought his Jamaican family to Canada at just the right time for him to have opportunities that would not have been possible had some initial conditions been slightly different.

The result is an understanding of success and achievement that is richer and more real, because of its reliance on history, environment, and destiny. It's a whole new way of looking at the world. Fantastic reading for anyone.

5 stars.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Review: America the Book by Jon Stewart

America (The Book) by Jon Stewart (2004)
[Photo courtesy of]

I had high hopes for America (The Book), but that's probably because I already read/listened to Colbert's "America Again". Jon Stewart's book is smart and very true in its assessment of U.S. politics, but it's a bit too real to be funny. 

It's not so much a satire. It's more a bunch of honest truth about our messed up political system, delivered with swear words and tongue-in-cheek observations about the way things actually are.

In a way that mirrors the difference between Stewart and Colbert - Jon Stewart is full of one-liners and funny assessments of the goings-on of the day in U.S. politics and media. Colbert, on the other hand, plays the long game, constructing an all-encompassing satire that will occasionally venture into the absurd. Stewart's comedy is somewhat tame in comparison.

Strangely, America (The Book) really seems to work as an actual textbook of American politics, as it points out the many illogical characteristics of our system. It does so though with a bit of negativity and cynicism that mean it isn't as lighthearted and funny as it could be.

3 Stars.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Mashable redesign: 5 Pros, 1 con, 1 caveat

[Screenshot of from Jan. 16, 2013]
+Mashable redesigned its website in December, and while I don't think it does everything right, the folks at the popular tech site made some very interesting decisions about how to present content that I think reflect some new realities about how people navigate content on the Web.
It's a bold redesign that is almost consciously different than anything that currently exists on the Web. Here are the takeaways for me. [tl;dr at the bottom]

3-COLUMN LAYOUT: Using the eye's natural tendencies

Mashable has chosen to believe that the eye will gravitate to the right naturally, so instead of putting the biggest stories top left, they put their newest stories on the left, with small thumbnails that ensure more new content is visible above the fold in that column. 

In the second column you get the fastest-growing content (a friend at Mashable confirms these are the ones most rapidly growing in traffic) to see what's buzzing right now. Think of it like a Rally-car race: these stories haven't gone as far as the ones that went before them, but they are going the fastest. Each one even comes with a tiny line graph showing its speed.

On the right, with the biggest images and therefore most editorial weight, are the biggest stories on the site right now. Most-viewed overall.

INFINITE SCROLL: The killer app

While a bit buggy and jumpy, the most important thing about the redesign (though of course not unique to Mahsable) is the dynamic loading of content as you scroll down. This creates literally endless pages. The more you scroll the more content you get. Readers can go as deeply as they want.

And while this is great for section fronts, it is most innovative on the story level - if you read to the bottom of a story, the site basically loads the section front for that category below. Reading a lifestyle story or a story about social media? Well when you're done you'll get a basically endless amount of other stories in that category without clicking back to any section fronts. Very nice.

MINIMAL NAVIGATION: Goodbye stacks of subnavs

While you can navigate by content type along the top of the page, where a simple rollover will load links and images for 5 top stories, there are not a million subnavs and buckets breaking things up on the page. 

To me this reflects a new philosophy of what people look for when they come to your homepage. They don't come thinking "I wonder what the latest lifestyle/business/video game content is on Mashable", rather they are thinking "I wonder what's new, I wonder what's trending, I wonder what I should know about because everyone else does."

Adjusting to this reader mindset is a very smart move.

MOBILE-FRIENDLY: Perfect integration with a phone or tablet, whichever way you hold it

Consistent design is important in our multi-screen lifestyles now, and Mashable now delivers the exact same experience no matter what device you are using to access it. Stories are all easy to click and navigate on iPhone (1 column at a time) and iPad (2 columns in portrait mode, 3 in landscape), and everything works the same way.

IMAGES EVERYWHERE: Gives readers something to click on 

No plain headlines anywhere on the page, which is very satisfying. Click-maps that I have seen at several websites that I have worked show that people click on the thumbnail way more often than they click on the headline.

~There is one drawback~

NO CLEAR CATEGORIES: All stories look the same

When you have pages with infinite scroll, I believe it's important to give more at-a-glance information for people skimming the whole page. 

Some visual cues so you could see which stories are in which category (if you want to scan for the latest social-media-specific content, e.g.) would be helpful. The topnav, which follows you down the page, takes care of that to some extent, but they have to look somewhere else to get it.

THE CAVEAT: It's Mashable

While this type of design makes more sense for a narrowly focused site like mashable than a truly general-news website, I do think it's smart in some of the ways it adapts to the way people consume content online (coming in one story at a time instead of navigating section fronts), which I think is a relevant lesson for any news website.

Verdict: 5 stars, once they fix the laggy loading.

Mashable's redesign succeeds in 5 big ways: Infinite scrolling, 3-column layout that emphasizes new content and works perfectly on mobile devices, minimal navigation menus and photo-heavy layout. It has one drawback in that categorization of stories is not very clear, but there are lessons to be learned for all news websites from the new

Friday, January 4, 2013

Review: The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver

The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver (2012)
[Photo courtesy of the Penguin Group]

A book about statistics is always going to be a book about statistics, but in the same vein as Freakonomics, The Signal and the Noise is definitely packaged for broader social appeal. 

While it does go into some wonky detail about the academic underpinnings of probability theory, Nate Silver's book is an interesting look at how prediction and probability works and doesn't work when applied to a variety of real-world issues. That is both useful and entertaining.

He looks at earthquake prediction, hurricane prediction, probability in poker, predicting elections, and most of it is interesting. Some of the themes repeat - some predictions fail for the same reasons, which leads to some repetitive moments - but overall the vignettes are engaging. 

And the thread that ties it all together is a valuable takeaway: trying to make a specific prediction is impossible, but looking at the overall probability of events occurring is incredibly effective, provided there is enough data to look at.

It's no Freakonomics, but it's definitely worth reading.

4 Stars.