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#102/111: Dumbing Us Down

At first, I had not read the book because of its sensationalist title which would have been a pity. John Gatto, former school teacher and winner of lots of teacher of the year awards, talks about what he taught in his year as a teacher. He taught in several different schools, public, privates, some in wealthy school districts, other in Brooklyn but he always saw the same. He taught: confusion, indifference and dependency.

It is reasonable to ask how one can become teacher of the year with this curriculum. Let’s start at confusion. Pupils learn bits of knowledge: they learn that Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, they learn that force equals mass multiplied by acceleration, they may learn the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. But they don’t learn something in depth. They don’t understand different schools of thought, they don’t understand different approaches to learning in depth and they don’t intuitively can apply what they learned. Pupils learn bits but not the whole picture.  

What about indifference? You get into your class, learn for 45-90mins and then you get into the next class as if it isn’t worth learning for more than 90mins at a stretch. And if so, you should do it after school. You may be happy that some classes only last 50mins.

The last one I want to highlight is dependency. Kids learn that the have to please their teacher to be rewarded. “If I’m a good boy my teacher will be nice to me.” Furthermore, the teacher says what’s right. They studied their subject for years, they have to know it. They are the experts. That is, kids are emotional and intellectual depend on teachers.

You may agree but say: “Sure, that’s bad but it is necessary.” - Gatto’s recommendation is destroying the monopoly. He wants to create a diverse market place for education. He’s a proponent of unschooling (and home schooling). Kids shouldn’t be forced to learn because they don’t have to, they are natural curious and furthermore it’s damaging to their learning. Instead of learning thirty different subjects about 90mins per week for 12 years, kids should learn what their interested in. He cites studies that show that you can learn in about 200 hours the basics in how to read, write and calculate and afterwards kids should explore for themselves what they are interested in.

I will address some further implications of unschooling in later posts for other books. It’s actually pretty interesting that more recent studies show that this approach of learning is better for education that it’s alternatives.

In conclusion, I liked Dumbing Us Down. John Gatto collected several of his articles and speeches and presents his ideas in a clear manner. Some students will be relieved that a teacher understood how they felt in their schooldays.

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#101/111: Learning in Depth

I continued to think a lot about education recently, mainly after watching a Google Talk with Salman Khan from the Khan Academy. Lots of people associate learning with grading and tests and I hear many adult persons say that they are happy that they don’t have to learn anymore. However, most of them learn everyday but they don’t have to write exams and they don’t have to sit in classrooms.

However, these thoughts took me to do some searching and look for books about improving education. After reading the first twenty pages of Learning in Depth, I was already in love with Kieran Egan’s ideas. He suggest that each student gets one topic at the beginning of his schooling and builds a portfolio of this topic in his 12 years in school. This project is ungraded and voluntary. I sketch you how this can look.

You are in your second week in school and your parents are there. The whole class is assembled and your teacher gives you your future topic: Apples. You are eager to learn more about apples, you ask your parents and your teachers about them. You may paint them or collect pictures of them. Six years later. Your still working on your portfolio. You collected facts to different apples and identified rare types. Furthermore, you discovered apples in popular culture and talked to seniors which got the same topic as you about what they learned. Skip ahead another six years. Your in your final years and you still working on your portfolio. You covered different aspects of apples from cultural, to economical, to philosophical, to scientific factors. You helped lots of other peoples with your apple portfolio and you started about website about philosophical aspects of apples.

Why all this? You learned one topic in depth which will help you to connect to other topics more easily. Furthermore, you experienced learning without compulsion. You learned different approaches of learning about topics and structuring them. And all for the joy of learning.

If you are interested in this idea or hate it or have some objections, you should definitely read this book. Egan covers lot of problems and objects. Definitively worth reading if you are interested into new schooling methods.

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#100/111: Talent Is Overrated

What is it about?

How did Mozart become to great at composing music? Why does Tiger Woods rock the GPA world tour? Are they more talented that you and me? Geoff Colvin explores if talent matters and how you can achieve extraordinary achievements.

What can I learn?

Talent is overrated: Colvin cited some studies which showed that learning is the critical factor in achieving great performance. You have probably experienced this by yourself. There are kids which can read and calculate with 4 years but 10 years later they are mediocre in reading and calculating. Or the other way around. There were fellow pupils which really sucked in math and three years later they graduated as the best of the class. Generally, talent doesn’t matter. What matters is (deliberate) practice.

You decide: This was my main motivator about four years ago to change my life. Either you accept that you can change your life and that your are responsible for its outcomes or you accept that you are mostly influenced by other actions and can’t really control so much. If you choose the first option, you will be able to achieve extraordinary stuff. You don’t have to think about talent. You can just start and learn. That is, if you think there’s talent and it matters, than this book will be worthless for you.

Deliberate practice: Practice isn’t practice. The most effect turned out to be deliberate practice. This costs of instant feedback, is repeatable and you are focused on learning, i.e. there’s no automation of your actions. It’s quite easy if you think about learning an instrument. But how do you learn, let’s say about marketing? Colvin recommends different things. For once, you can take case studies in marketing, work through them and create solutions. Afterwards, you compare them with actual result. For most effect, you can work on it some months later when you forgot the actual result and do it again. Probably your solution will improve. An other way is to use simulations. There are a lot of business / marketing games out there, which can help you understand mechanics better. Furthermore, it always helps to read basic literature again. Work through marketing books which you read some years ago. Frankly, one thing I learned in this reading challenge is that there isn’t much new information about marketing/business. It’s just old ideas translated into a new medium, nothing else.

Conclusion

It frightening how much I agree with the book. Geoff Colvin did a great job in summing up various research and presenting it to the reader. Some guy named Dan decided about a year ago to try out an experiment. He will put 10,000 hours deliberate practice into golf and plans to become a professional golfer. The hardest part is persistence. Great job, great book. Recommendation!

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#99/111: The Algorithm Design Manual

An other one of the technical books. After reading the introduction to comp sci, I wanted to deepen my knowledge a bit and I had stand this book in my shelve. I started working through it and highly enjoyed it. The Algorithm Design Manual got 9 chapters with about 30 exercises per chapter. Furthermore, its got a reference with different problems and applications for algorithms. There are solutions online which is great. I highly recommend this book if you want a great introduction into algorithms.

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#98/111: The Passionate Programmer

What is it about?

Most people are mediocre at their job. Some are not like Chad Fowler how talks about being remarkable. This doesn’t only apply to programmers, it applies to every kind of occupation.

What can I learn?

Don’t be a jerk: This one is actually a pretty important thing to learn for programmers. I know a lot of them and many think that people who don’t understand how to program are inferior. They like their tech talk and they isolate their selves from the rest of the company. I don’t know if people can learn this that fast but maybe it’s an beginning. Stop talking tech talk if you talk with non-tech people. They don’t care about every minute detail. They got problems and want them solved. Think more about them and how you can solve their problems.

Learn about business: The next step is to open yourself to new areas like business. You may laugh about sales persons but they make the money. You don’t have to be friends with business people, however it is recommended. Learn about what they are doing. How that accounting work. What do the marketing people do? This insight is extremely valuable among software devs because most of them know a thing about such stuff. You will learn about new problems, new solutions and new persons.

Market yourself: If you realized that there are people out there who actually appreciate if you help them solve their problems and became less a jerk, then it’s maybe time to market yourself actively. An easy way is to start a blog. Write about what you doing, about solutions for problems that you encountered. A big blog will often lead to some invitations to conferences or book deals.

Conclusion

A great book for every specialist. It doesn’t matter if you’re a biochemist, software dev or designer, a lot of tips will help you to build a remarkable career for yourself.

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#97/111: The Last Lecture

What is it about?

If you haven’t heard about Randy Pausch, he was a computer science professor at the CMU and had pancreatic cancer. He hold his famous lecture about achieving one’s childhood dreams and told about his. 

What can I learn?

You choose to be happy or sad: Although he was diagnosed with pancreas cancer he was still optimistic. He could just cried all day long and complain about his faith. Or he could choose to enjoy his last months alive and that was was he did.

Live your dreams: I know some people that talk since a few years about doing some special, like migrating into an other country or switching their jobs. After some time a dream becomes some sort of utopia which will never reached but the dream about it will stay you motivated. That’s totally ok. A few dreams shouldn’t be lived. It’s just that you should look if there are opportunities to fulfill your dreams. It took Randy over 20 years to finally experience zero gravity but he has experienced it.

What would you do, if you knew that you will die in 12 months?

Conclusion

I enjoyed the book and his actual lecture. The book tells mostly about the lecture but there’s also additional narrations about his live before and after the lecture. Such a book makes one grateful of living without any serious illnesses. It inspired me and that’s in my opinion the greatest thing one person can do.

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#96/111: Conversion Optimization

What is it about?

Increase your profit by 40% just be changing your slogan. Sounds suspicious but it is possible. You’ll just need tons of good ideas, some time and testing. Saleh & Shukairy talk about conversion optimization and how you can increase your profit over time.

What can I learn?

Personas: I talked about personas some time ago but this book used them really in detail, which was refreshing. The idea is that you define imaginative customers and think about them if you do any decisions in marketing/sales. This will help you especially if you got different types of customers. However, it is important that you do your market research first. Lots of people fall into the trap that they just make up personas without knowing their prospects/customers.

FUDs: Fear, uncertainty and doubt. This is why people won’t buy from you even when you got a product they would buy. You can use your personas here, again. Think about their fears, uncertainties and doubts when browsing your website, e.g. “is my data secure?”, “what happens if I want to return the product?” or “does this work on my computer?”. You probably can’t convince people that they should buy your product if they don’t like it. But you can help people buy your product if they are afflicted by FUDs.

Iterative testing: I talked about testing some weeks ago in detail, so I won’t say that much about its basics. After initial testing, you shouldn’t just assume that now everything is perfect. The idea behind iterative testing is that you design your product and presentation and slowly change it element by element. This will improve your presentation and product step by step. Amazon does a great job doing this. They won’t relaunch every few years with a completely new design. Rather they change just some elements a time.

Conclusion

I don’t like this book as much as Always Be Testing, mainly because most content is in both books. Conversion Optimization doesn’t really bring new concepts in the game which aren’t already known. The book is OK. If you haven’t read anything about testing or conversion optimization, I would recommend Always Be Testing.

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#95/111: Do More Faster

What is it about?

The techstars program is famous and so are Brad Feld and David Cohen. They talked to lots of members and mentors of the techstars program and let them write small articles on different subjects. How did it work out?

What can I learn?

Concentrate on doing one thing good: So you work on your product and want to compete with some big company. What will you do? Provide more features than their product? Nice try, you already lost the battle. Mature products, like Microsoft Office or Matlab are crowded with features. If you want to compete then you should focus on doing one thing unexceptionally great. You don’t have to resources to implement millions of features and you won’t stand out.

Decide and execute fast: What is the huge advantage of startups / small companies against big corps? Agility. If you can decide and execute fast, you should. I saw small companies which had structures like big corps. This lead to slow deciding and executing and killed them, at last. Don’t waste time on bureaucracy and execute now.

You don’t need VC: Some people think that you aren’t a real tech company if you don’t get any VC money. That’s not true. Firstly, you have to understand if you need money and what the implications are. No outside money means more freedom later on. You may start faster at the beginning but it can happen that you build your product, get lots of customers and then get kicked by your VCs and get $100k for three years work.

Conclusion

I’m frankly disappointed by this book. It got great names on and in it but it doesn’t reach my expectations. It’s hasn’t much substance, most tips are superficial. The format isn’t the problem here, other books like Joel’s Best of Software Writing I did a great job in collecting articles and publishing them. No recommendation.

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#94/111: Don’t Just Roll the Dice

What is it about?

Pricing is highly critical and an in-depth topic. Can such a short book fulfill your needs? We will see. Neil Davidson is also famous for hosting Business of Software.

What can I learn?

Know your market segment: People work with relatives. If your competitor’s products cost between $10 and $20, you have a hard time sell yours for $2000. The first thing is to learn about your market segment. How high are competitor’s prices and why are they what they are. Learn about your customers. For example, software that cost less than $10 will be easily bought  by nearly anybody. If your software costs more than $50 some personal customers may get nervous. If you product costs more than $1000 your customer probably needs to talk to his superior. Even $1, $999 vs. $1000 can make a huge difference! Ideally, you should know about this by customer development.

Think about presentation:  Pricing is not just about setting a price. It’s also about product presentation, e.g. bundling. Do you sell other software? Which alternatives are there? Maybe you could sell with an complementary product? There are lots of different possibilities. Generally, selling just one product will produce a higher price.

Test, Test, Test: The most important thing, like expected, is testing your pricing. The best way to do so is by features. Take a look at software from 37signals or Microsoft. They got different product packages. For small and large businesses or personal users. You should avoid to charge different prices for the same product. This can really annoy users. One idea is that you sell your product for $x but display $x resp. $(x+y) as price. If enough users were willing to buy for $(x+y) you can increase your price and use this event as a nice marketing tool.

Conclusion

Firstly, you can read Don’t Just Roll the Dice for free! I liked the book, however it is just 80 pages or so. I think it got some nice ideas and is more to get a overview over the topic than really learning about it. You will find lots of articles on pricing on sites like Hacker News. In conclusion, great book for learning the basics but later you should look for other resources.

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#93/111: Concrete Abstractions

Following the other basic books I wanted to strengthen my basic knowledge about computer science and this book is excellent for this task. It uses Scheme as the introductory language (like SICP) and does a great job in explaining basic data structures and algorithms. If you want to seriously learn about basic computer science, this is a nice book which is also a bit easy than SICP. You can actually read Concrete Abstractions for free which is quite nice.

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#92/111: Always Be Testing

What is it about?

It should be clear that this book is about testing. But why test? Because it helps you to optimize your website/shop which helps you to increase your profit. Eisenberg & von Tivadar show you how to test and what to test.

What can I learn?

Competitive, Spontaneous, Methodical, Humanistic: Everybody makes decisions different. The authors differentiates between these four types. The competitive type comes to a decision quite quickly and does want to know why you can solve his problem. The spontaneous type is more emotional and wants surprises, also this type makes her decision more quickly than the other two types. The methodical type needs lots of information and time to come to a decision. He wants to know each detail and each specification of your product/service. The last type is humanistic that focuses on humans, e.g. this type wants to know which other people are using your product.

In which state is your customer?: Not every customer is equal in its state. Some people are ready to buy and just search for the lowest price. Others want to browse and collect some information. Again others just stumbled on your website. Depending on your product and service you can focuses on different types. Lots of sites just focuses on the first type which is ready to buy. Shops like Amazon considers nearly every type. You can collect information, read testimonials and shop for lower prices.

Basics first: Before you start to test if light blue or dark blue is better for your logout button, you should test some basic elements first. Often they got a greater impact on your overall conversion. Things like slogans, important buttons, order of your links, etc.

Conclusion

Always Be Testing is a nice book. It covers a intro into statistics and hypothesis testing. Furthermore, it shows you how to use Google’s Website Optimizer. It got tons of ideas what to test. I haven’t see any severe flaw. Nice book!