Twitter Power by Joel Comm

Twitter Power by Joel Comm

Finally adding a very small review about Twitter Power by Joel Comm. It was disappointing. In short, Twitter Power provides an overview of what twitter does as well as giving some general pointers on how to use twitter. It’s the tweeting basics, in other words.

The reason this book fails is because it is unlikely in the extreme that someone who knows nothing about twitter will by this book before taking a stab at twittering and learning either by trial and error or any number of free online resources how to do the sorts of things Joel Comm writes about in his book. And if you were like me and bought the book prior to it’s reviews, you might have thought “Hey this Joel Comm guy has a ton of followers and his book is callled ‘Twitter Power’, which strongly evokes the notion of a power-user. Let’s see what tips/tricks the big boys know!” That’s what I did anyway. And when I just now (writing this review some two months after reading the book! Today is June 26!) went to Amazon, despite the book receiving over four stars with 70+ reviews, what’s the second highest review of Twitter Power but this gem, which I whole-heartedly agree with:

I was disappointed with Twitter Power, especially after reading the many reviews that claimed this book would reveal many techniques for both beginners and pros alike. For anyone that has been using Twitter for more than a couple weeks, this book is really 101. It seems to be geared towards people that have never heard of Twitter or are just getting started. If that’s the case, this book will help you get your feet wet, but it doesn’t shed light on anything you can’t pick up on your own simply by using Twitter for a few days.

Twitter is real time with instant response in most cases, and you’ll find out what works for you and what doesn’t almost immediately. You can also pay attention to the power players and note their approach. The book just points you to the top users on Twitter anyways. Save your money and do a little homework.

Another problem with this book, which I should have anticipated having previously read Joel Comm’s The Adsense Code, was that books about the internet’s latest stuff, even when bought extremely close to their completion, have a decidedly out of date quality to them by the time they are read. In the case of The Adsense Code, I even took some of the information to bat regarding certain Google policies only to be rebuffed by a friend who informed me that their policy had changed. Oof!

With twitter, just look at this graph of twitter’s traffic from alexa.com.

Twitter Power came out on February 17, 2009. In other words, assuming Joel more-or-less finished this book a good month or so before it went to publish, the “twitterverse” about which he wrote is no longer the twitterverse we have today. Sure, much of it has stayed the same, but much of it has also changed.

My conclusion: the model of reading-books-about-the-Internet is broken.

Finally, and I’m sure Joel Comm is a super guy, but I follow @joelcomm on twitter in hopes of gleaning knowledge about how a pro tweets and even that disappoints. For some great examples of twitter-users worth following, check out @mikemueller or the fantastic @gregormacdonald.

But don’t waste your time on Twitter Power.

The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Nassim Taleb’s The Black Swan is a fantastic, eye-opening book that will challenge not only what you know but also what you think you know. Taleb is widely renowned as the guy who made beaucoup amounts of money off of the 1987 stock market crash. He profited not by predicting the crash would happen, but that the system would eventually produce a “black swan” event that would make options insanely profitable.

Recommendation — Nassim Nicholas Taleb (or “NNT” as I like to refer to him) opened my eyes with this book. Any book that can blow open your understanding of the world is a must-read — and this is one of those books. The role that randomness and unpredictability play in our lives is completely under-appreciated, when it is acknowledged at all. Just one attempt at appreciation I’ve made can be found in my post “But For,” which is an attempt to string together a series of unplanned events that have cumulatively had an enormous impact on my life.

Going forward, I want to garner a greater appreciation for power law, stochasticity, black swan events, and living in “Extremistan.” On my immediate reading list are related books: The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives, Stumbling on Happiness and The Luck Factor: The Four Essential Principles. I’ve yet to order it, but NNT’s first book, Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets, is also on my list.

I’ve become a bit of a Nassim Taleb junkie and typically link down stuff he puts out (videos, articles, posts to his low-tech blog “Opacity,” etc.).

Review — Rather than recant what others have said better, I’ll selectively quote a thorough and informative review of the book from Amazon:

The Black Swan is probably the strongest statement of enlightened empiricism since Ernst Mach refused to acknowledge the existence of the atom. Of course, in theory, everyone today is supposed to be an empiricist – all right-thinking intellectuals claim to base their views solely on positive scientific observation. But very few sincerely confront the implications of rigorous empiricism. Specifically, few confront “the problem of induction,” illustrated here by the story of the black swan.

Briefly: observing an event once does not predict it will occur again in the future. This remains true regardless of the number of observations one adds to the pile. Or, as Taleb, recapitulating David Hume, has it: the observation of even a million white swans does not justify the statement “all swans are white.” There is no way to know that somewhere out there a black swan is not hiding, disproving the rule and nullifying our “knowledge” of swans. The problem of induction tells us that we cannot really learn from our experiences. It makes knowledge very problematic, if not impossible. And yet, humans do behave -almost without exception- as though they believe that experience teaches us lessons. This is forgivable; there is no better path to knowledge. But before proceeding, one must account for the limits that the problem of induction places on our claims to knowledge. And humans seem, at every turn, to lack this critical self-awareness.

Taleb explains that conventional social scientists use induction to collect data, which is then plotted on the good old Gaussian bellcurve. With characteristic silliness, Taleb dubs the land of the bellcurve “Mediocristan” – and informs us that it is the natural habitat of the white swan. He contrasts Mediocristan with “Extremistan” – where chaos reigns, the wholly unexpected happens, power laws and fractal geometry apply and the bellcurve does not. Taleb’s fictional/metaphorical ‘stans’ share something with the ‘stans’ of the real world: very ill-defined borders. Indeed, one can never tell whether one is in the relatively safe territory of Mediocristan or if one has wandered into the lawless tribal regions of Extremistan. The bellcurve can only help you in Mediocristan, but you have no way of knowing whether you have strayed into Extremistan – beyond the bellcurve’s jurisdiction. This means that bellcurves are of no reliable use, anywhere. The full implications of this take a while to sink in, and are sure to cause huge controversy. In July, Taleb will debate Charles Murray (author of -what else?- the Bell Curve). I’ll let you know who wins.

Traffic by Tom Vanderbilt

Traffic by Tom Vanderbilt

Just finished reading Traffic by Tom Vanderbilt. I originally heard about this book via NPR and was curious enough to add it to my Amazon wish list. I’ve blogged on traffic/driving before. See autodogmatic:

Two of the above blog posts referred to studies that are mentioned in Traffic. “Anarchy” is frequently alluded to by Vanderbilt, as well, even as it is disclaimed — likely because Vanderbilt is using “anarchy” to mean chaotic rather than anarchy-as-spontaneous-order. The latter understanding (that anarchy-as-spontaneous-order reigns on the roads) is hard to ignore.

Rather than rewrite my own review, I’ll echo one of the top-reviews on amazon:

While the topic of the book is nominally “traffic”, the real topic is about human psychology and how it deals with the situations involving traffic. The material is chock full of “things that make you go, ‘hmm.'”

In spite of being intriguing, the information the author conveys is rarely useful information. The reader will likely be left unmoved by the author’s reasoned advocacy of late merging, for instance. Similarly, the style of writing feels like that of a news or talk show, where the announcer/host will “tease” an interesting bit of info, run a commercial, discuss things about which you don’t care, run another commercial, and then, in the last 2 minutes of air time, give you the anticlimactic answer to the story headline you found interesting enough to make you sit and watch.

Unfortunately, most of the book is like this, and the cool things that the author has to say are just that. Cool, but not quite meriting a book. Of the book’s 400 pages, nearly 100 are end notes. I am happy that the author’s work is well-sourced (books of this genre often lack sources, preferring to rely on anecdotes), but it conveys how the author had to work fairly hard to turn a very large set of disjointed facts into any sort of readable narrative.

The book wasn’t as gripping or insightful as I was hoping it would be. It wasn’t bad — just not a fun read. I think it could have been condensed to only 200 pages max (it was 286 readable — probably another 100 of biblio). One tidbit I learned that I’ll share is that people have historically gravitated to an average commute time of about 30 minutes. This time has made for different city sizes from days when people walked everywhere and cities typically had no larger than a five mile diameter to modern days when people drive many miles into and out of a city on their daily commute via fast-paced highways.

Interesting trivia, for sure — good reading? Ehhhh …