Book Review: The Invention of Air

Among my favorite things in San Francisco is Green Apple Books. My favorite thing about Green Apple Books is their “New Arrivals” section, which features the latest books sold to them (they are primarily a second-hand book store), and you can typically find newly-released books at deep discount. On my last trip there, a couple weeks ago, I was able to pick up Steven Johnson’s latest, The Invention of Air, before it had been officially released. This is because Green Apple seems to be the favored secondhand store among SF’s book critics.

I’ve been reading Steven Johnson since before he wrote books — he was one of the founders of FEED, one of those four-letter original content sites from Ye Olde Webbe. His first book, Interface Culture, was a primary inspiration when peterme.com launched, and I’ve read every one of his books except Everything Bad is Good For You (which is probably his bestseller, but which I felt I didn’t need to read after reading so much about it online in and magazines).

Steven has a knack for covering subjects that directly interest me, whether interface design, complexity theory, cognitive science, or city planning. He’s the closest to the public intellectual I think I would be if I weren’t too afraid to stop earning a paycheck and instead wrote books and pursued interesting subjects for a living.

It’s probably because of my kinship with his subject matter that I’m particularly critical of his work. Looking back over recent peterme.com posts, there’s my review of The Ghost Map which called into question his boosterism of cities, and my frustration at a talk he gave on The Long Zoom, where it felt like he was stretching in order to make a point.

And it’s with that critical eye I read The Invention of Air, a not-biography of Joseph Priestley, most famous for “discovering” oxygen. My criticism makes me a little uneasy — I can’t say I know Steven well, but I have interacted with him some over the last 10 or so years (he even spoke on a panel of mine at South by Southwest in 2000 (scroll to March 17)), and he even twittered his interest in my thoughts. All I can hope is, if he reads this, he takes it with the constructiveness I intend!

I say “not-biography” because although Priestley is main subject of the work, it only focuses on a few key events in his life. I also say “not-biography” because Air is confused about just what kind of book it wants to be. It addresses everything from ecosystems theory to the founding of America, from Priestley’s experiments with gases to how he was the subject of much discussion between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson in their famous epistolary exchange in their later years — and does this all in just over 200 pages.

As such, I walked away not knowing exactly what was Steven’s point. I think what really drove him wasn’t Priestley per se, but instead how Priestley’s story supports Steven’s “Long Zoom” theory of history, which disputes standard historical narratives (“Great Man”, “movement”) and says that the only way to appreciate history and biography is by understanding actions at a number of scales, from the micro to the macro. This was implicit in The Ghost Map, which went from the cholera bacteria, up to the human transmitters, and up again to the infrastructure of cities. He makes it explicit here because he’s clearly frustrated by standard historical practice. The problem is that the narrative pretty much stops at the point of Long Zoom explanation, and it signals the first moment of confusion for the reader — just what am I supposed to be taking away?

The other thing that makes me think that Priestley wasn’t really the point is that, after reading it, I still have very little understanding of the man. I know some events from his life, and how he touched others, but I left Air without a sense of what kind of person Priestley was (apart from optimistic and friendly). And I think that’s because Steven felt compelled to cover too wide a range of material for such a small book. If this were a meaty 600-800 page tome, he could have done justice to all the book’s components, and probably marry it with a novelistic style. Instead, at 200 pages, we end up getting a book of ideas more than a book about people, and as such, it’s pretty bloodless.

Now, I look a good book of ideas — and if that’s what it’s gonna be, own it from beginning to end. Steven’s Emergence is a book of ideas, and a brilliant one at that, and probably still his most essential book. He made complexity theory engrossing and approachable, and tied it into a set of things that really mattered. It also happened to be his first “Long Zoom” work. But, like Ghost Map, it was implicit. And I think such implicitness would serve Steven better. I think the concern for making a “Long Zoom” history/biography got in the way of delivering a strong narrative that compelled the story forward. For a historical text, simply tell the story, and let us readers realize the connective structure — you don’t need to do the meta-thinking for us.

My favorite part of Air is the retelling of Priestley’s experiments with a sprig of mint, candles, and mice, the first hint that plants exhale a substance that allows candles to keep burning, animals to keep breathing. And Steven’s point that this is essentially the beginning of ecosystems theory, presaging the Gaia hypothesis by about 200 years, is exciting. (I also love that it’s Ben Franklin who is the first to draw the systems inference from Priestley’s experiment). Had the book remained focused on air and such natural systems, I probably would be less critical.

However, the book continues discussing Priestley’s religious and political life, and his role in informing the thoughts of America’s founding fathers, beginning with Franklin (they got to know one another when Franklin lived in London) and then John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. And a lot of effort is made connecting Priestley to early American political thought, though it’s based largely on how frequently he’s cited by Adams and Jefferson in their letters — letters written after Priestley’s death, and when both men are essentially retired from public life. It comes across as quite an overselling of Priestley’s influence — yes, it’s interesting that he probably made some impact, but, really, Priestley’s impact was relatively small compared to all the things which influenced early American ideology. Whereas his scientific legacy remains importantly influential to this day, there’s little that connects his religious or political thought to contemporary times. In a book of this size, such discourse should have been treated as an epilogue of interest, not as warranting half of the text.

Now, saying that, I’m violating one of Steven’s key tenets, which is that you can’t separate the scientific from the religious and political in Priestley’s life, nor could you in the educated life of the times. But, really, the religious and political work simply isn’t as compelling as the scientific, because it has had dramatically less impact. And again, this calls into question, just what is the central thesis of the Air — is it the Long Zoom, or the importance of consilience across science, religion, and politics? I think trying to address both weakens each argument.

OK. I’m done writing about this for now. (This is the third pass I’ve made at this post.)

Movie Review: Slumdog Millionaire

Hold on to your hat, Andrew, as I’m about to proffer my second positive film review in a row!

On Christmas, my dad and I went to see Slumdog Millionaire, Danny Boyle’s latest, set in India, mostly in Mumbai. If you’re looking for a good flick to watch this weekend, I heartily recommend it.

The heart of the film is exceedingly simple, a combination of “boy meets girl, boy loses girl,” and a tale of brothers taking different paths. On top of that simplicity, Boyle weaves intricate exposition with flashbacks, parallel stories, multiple film styles, all strung together by the Who Wants to Be A Millionaire? game that drives the movie.

Though ultimately joyful, and often fun, be prepared to witness brutality — this is not a standard happy Christmastime flick.

Though made long before the recent tragedy in Mumbai, the film has uncomfortable echoes of that situation — the initial incident that propels the entire movie involves anti-Muslim violence. You realize just how long and deep the animosity runs.

The film deserves an audience, and it provides enough of a cinematic experience to warrant theater viewing.

I chat with Scott McCloud

Some readers of peterme.com will know I’ve long had an obsession with Scott McCloud’s work. 15 years ago, I read Understanding Comics, and it was a bolt of lightning in my intellectual development. About 10 years ago, I had the fortune of meeting Scott, and maintaining a friendship with him.

(here’s a scary picture of the two of us in 1999. Scary because I look like a serial killer.
)

Since we’ve been hosting events at Adaptive Path, I’ve wanted to have Scott speak at them, but it never seemed to work out, either logistically or thematically. Well, that changes next year. For UX Week 2009, our theme involves “looking laterally,” and bringing in people who influence us from fields outside design, and Scott is on board.

To mark this, Scott and I recorded a telephone conversation where topics spanned influences, Edward Tufte, the rise of visual expression in every day life, crafting the Google Chrome comic, micropayments, and the basics UX designers should know about crafting comics. You can download the conversation as an MP3, or, soon, find it on Adaptive Path’s podcast stream (RSS, iTunes)

It’s worth noting that Adaptive Path is having a huge end-of-the-year promotion for all of its 2009 events. Sign up by December 31st, and use the promotional code FOPM (“Friends of Peter Merholz”) for huge savings.

Yahoo! Brickhouse Post – Take 2

So, my initial post was spurred by a desire for a quick response to the grousing I was seeing about the Brickhouse shutting down, grousing I thought unfounded. But my response was not as constructive as it could have been, so let me try again, after having put some more thought into it.

Why do I care about this stuff? Well, my job is about delivering great experiences, and recently I’ve been thinking a lot about what it takes for organizations to be doing that. Also, I know/knew a lot of folks at Brickhouse, and while I admired their talents, vision, and, perhaps most important, humor, Brickhouse, as a component to an organization, never made sense to me. And I think we can learn something in its passing.

In my prior post, I referred to Brickhouse as a research and development arm, and that’s not wholly accurate. It was more of a product incubator (research and development was the charter of Yahoo! Research, which still seems to exist).

As I understand it, Yahoo! wanted to do less acquiring of innovative products like Flickr, Upcoming, and Delicious, and more creation of them from within. Additionally, I believe that as the bloom was coming off the Yahoo! rose (in light of Google’s ascendance), Yahoo! needed an offering for its talented staff, so that they’d be discouraged to leave. (In conversation with a friend very familiar with Brickhouse, I learned that Brickhouse never was large enough for it to serve this purpose. So I’ll recant my supposition).

The problem with Brickhouse was there from the start. Innovation centers separate from the main functioning of an organization pretty much never work. The two key reasons for this are: a) by being outside of the main functioning of the organization, they’re not hooked into the warp and weft of product development, so they don’t get into the pipeline for delivery and b) people in the main organization are jealous/envious/frustrated that innovation supposedly happens in a different group, so what they must be doing is drudgery/maintenance.

Steve Jobs got this, and among the first things he did when he joined Apple was kill the Advanced Technology Group, because the bulk of its work was going to waste, and that creative energy needed to be focused on the main products. It seems to have worked well for Apple.

Another approach is Google’s 20% time, which implies that everyone has innovative capabilities, and everyone is free to express them. Google’s 20% time lead to Gmail, Google News, Google Reader, Orkut, and AdSense, among other things.

From what I could see, Brickhouse never needed to justify its existence. For something so potentially precarious, that’s dangerous, because it becomes an easy target when times are hard. I think about this, because the same is true for user experience. We have to demonstrate we add value. We have to make it clear we are not simply a cost of doing business, but provide the potential for significant returns.

Anyway, I think there are important object lessons in Brickhouse’s closure, lessons that we seem to need to learn again and again. And while I’m sure it sucks to get laid off, I have trouble feeling too much sympathy for folks working in that group, because it was so obvious that it wasn’t delivering value to an organization that desperately needed it. I hope the folks who were in that group walk away not disgruntled at its being shut down, but thankful that they were given that much freedom in the workplace, and got to work with amazing people, because such opportunities are rare.

One more thing (written the following morning) – I don’t mean to suggest that the folks working in Brickhouse weren’t working hard, and weren’t committed to developing great stuff. But when working in a group like this removed from an organization’s main thrust, and in an organization as clearly troubled as Yahoo, you have to recognize that the group’s existence is tenuous. Though, as Susan Mernit predicted, Yahoo! is laying off group by group, and not recognizing that that there are remarkably talented people in Brickhouse who could help Yahoo! in other ways.

Yahoo! Brickhouse closes – People get upset – I think it’s okay

(I’ve updated my thoughts on this here)

Among the announcements coming from Yahoo! today is the close of Brickhouse, the “new product development” incubator set up two years ago. Reading tweets and notes in the blogosphere, a lot of folks are upset, thinking this is a foolish decision.

I think it makes perfect sense, and I’m surprised they hadn’t done it sooner.

Brickhouse essentially served as Yahoo!’s research and development arm. The thing is, stuff in Brickhouse rarely, if ever, made any impact anywhere else in Yahoo! Over four years ago, I wrote about the folly of r&d groups, and it still holds.

I’ve always been suspicious of the value of Brickhouse. From the outset, it seemed to be where Yahoo!’s most talented designers and developers went in order to avoid working on anything with accountability — and Yahoo! let them, because they didn’t want to lose that talent. The same thing happened to Yahoo!’s Design group back in February — when it became clear they were delivering no value to the business, they were let go.

So, unlike many of my friends and colleagues, I have trouble shedding tears over the demise of Brickhouse. It was apparent for a very long time that most of the efforts within Brickhouse were not delivering value, and it seemed as if the majority of folks within Brickhouse were perfectly fine with that. We have to accept the consequences of our decisions, and if we decide to work in an organization that has no demonstrable connection to value, we have to be prepared to be the first with our backs against the wall when hard times come.

Andy wrote that Yahoo!’s management “would be better served firing themselves,” but that’s true only to the extent that management should have never let the playground that was Brickhouse exist in the first place. Those who were in the Brickhouse should consider them lucky to have been able to play for 2 years while their colleagues turned the cranks that kept revenue coming in.

(this was dashed off in haste, and I’m sure it’s missing much nuance.)