Tuesday, 18 July 2006

The Long Tail – Chris Anderson *****

I ought to explain why something that some would see as a business book is turning up on a science site. Like a number of “crossover” titles (take Gladwell’s Tipping Point for instance), this is a book on the application of science to a business topic – in this case the science is a combination of economics and statistics, while the topic is the way we buy and sell things. Like all the best such books, the style is fluent, readable and packed with people and real examples (though it’s rather sad for a book on a subject where the global market is such an important component, that Chris Anderson takes such a parochial, almost purely US approach).
The message, like all the best big ideas, is very simple. Until very recently our whole approach to business has been to aim for the small number of big sellers and really push them. In fact we’ve seen a strong trend in that direction. It used to be you bought books in a bookstore with thousands of different titles. Now you are just as likely to buy the latest Harry Potter (or whatever) at a supermarket stocking perhaps as few as 200 titles. But the Internet, Anderson argues, is changing the game. As well as offering the big sellers, online retailers like Amazon and iTunes, and even more so Google (we’ll see why Google in a moment) have expanded into the tail of the distribution of sales (hence the book’s title). These virtual and semi-virtual stores can contain tens, hundreds or thousands of times as many titles as a normal bricks and mortar shop. It doesn’t matter if only a few copies sell, because the stockholding cost is so low.
In the early days of online shopping, retailers got it wrong in a big way. I can remember the excitement of discovering that there was an online CD store in the early days of AOL… and then the big disappointment that they actually carried less stock than the equivalent physical shop. The wonderful thing about Internet shopping is that you can have a vastly bigger catalogue and search through it, rather than browsing shelves in a shop. And this is producing a very different approach to shopping. Anderson describes his epiphany when asked to guess what percentage of the albums on a 10,000 album jukebox that takes its music from the Internet got played (after someone paid money for it). Anderson realized the usual answer of around 20%, from the 80/20 idea that says 20% of your stock produces 80% of your revenue, was too low for a digital device, and went for 50%. In fact the answer was 98%. Practically everything was of interest to someone – and the Long Tail idea says if you can get all those small sellers out there, the result will be a big market.
There is some argument that too much choice is a bad thing – people just get confused. This is true if all you do is present them with a huge bewildering array of options, with no way to make a practical choice. But the other part of the Internet success story is information and communication. You don’t just get vast amounts of products, but a swathe of information and filters to help support finding the right stuff for you. Some of it will come from the big sellers, but other parts will come from Anderson’s Long Tail, the niche stuff that may only be of interest to you and a few others. This is partly where Google comes in as a way of finding the stuff you want – but the company has also been very clever in the vast number of ways it makes use of the Long Tail, from its tailored advertising to its Google Video outlet.
Take two quick examples of dipping into the Long Tail. I have no trouble selling science books to publishers, but it’s much harder if I come up with a different idea. I wrote a book containing 12 murder mystery events, a bit like the murder mystery party kits, but there are 12 events for less than the price of one kit, and they are much more flexible. (See www.organizingamurder.com) No publisher wanted it. They said “it’s a great idea, but we don’t do books like this.'” No one does – that was the point. But by addressing the Long Tail directly it’s now selling well.
Similarly when an organist in Nottingham, UK came up with the idea of CDs of hymn backing tracks to sing along to when you don’t have an organist, he couldn’t get a company to produce them. But making them himself and selling direct (including individual tracks by email, a sort of iHymns, which no one else does) has made www.hymncds.compopular. Interestingly, he approached iTunes about carrying these tracks but they weren’t interested – as Anderson points out in the book, they are one of the less flexible suppliers to the Long Tail market, and still miss many opportunities.
I do have a couple of concerns. There is one example in the book that is just wrong in a big way. Anderson uses the example of astronomy to show how what used to be the preserve of a few professionals is now pushing out into the tail of amateurs, making real discoveries. Now if it had been almost any other science, this would have been a legitimate point. All sciences started out as amateur activities. Up until Victorian times, both professionals and amateurs could make a contribution, but in the 20th Century, science got too complex, too specialized for the amateur – and largely remains so today. But astronomy was always an exception (actually meteorology is another example, where amateur observers collect data for the professionals).
All through the 20th Century and up to the present day, amateurs have continued to make contributions and discoveries. There is just too much sky for it to be otherwise, and the techniques of observation remain relatively simple, compared with most scientific research. A good example is the UK’s favourite astronomer, Patrick Moore (see his autobiography for more details). Moore is an amateur (admittedly he has made his living from writing and broadcasting on astronomy, but he has never been a professional astronomer), yet he is the best known astronomer in the UK, and has made significant contributions to the study of the Moon.
The bigger concern is with Anderson’s assertion that the Long Tail effect is good for everyone. Specifically he asserts it’s good for the producers of what’s being sold (writers, artists etc.), as many more of them get exposure. But the trouble is, the Long Tail effect is an economy of scale thing, as Anderson himself identifies. The people who benefit are the big portals, through which buyers get to the niche items, because they have millions of little hits. The individual producer only gets a very small income. Isn’t that better than nothing? Yes, if you had nothing. But for good professionals who earned a living from writing or music, but weren’t in the blockbuster category, it’s a nightmare. You can’t live on the earnings from a small niche in the Long Tail – it’s an occupation for spare time enthusiasts. And it makes the route to success more of a lottery. Where once, the effort required to (say) get a book published was such that if you made that effort with a good product, yours would be relatively visible, and have a fair chance of becoming a big seller, going through the Long Tail route puts your product alongside millions of others – the outcome is much more random. Anderson might say we shouldn’t care – you don’t need a big seller if you’ve got the Long Tail. Again that’s a corporate view. Individuals still need something more than a few cents here and few cents there.
There is one significant flaw, then, but it doesn’t stop this being a great read and a superb assessment of what’s happening under our noses without many of us realizing. TV companies, movie companies and book publishers are still largely chasing the blockbuster. What the Long Tail says to them is: fine, don’t ignore the big sellers, they are still important – but give equal emphasis to providing access to that astounding choice that resides in that long, thin tail.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Tuesday, 11 July 2006

The New Killer Germs – Pete Moore ****

There is a real danger with a book like this. The message is stark. Bacteria and viruses (oh, and funguses too) are very good at damaging us, and though we briefly won the bacterial battle with antibiotics, there’s every chance that things are going to worse rather than better, because the more we ladle out the antibiotics, the more bacteria develop resistance. (And viruses don’t care anyway as antibiotics don’t affect them.) It’s the sort of message that is in danger of encouraging the reader to give up hope and go into a monastery. This sort of thing is okay in a newspaper or a magazine article, but in a book like this, we need more. Not just the dire warning – some practical conclusion. In the recent Viruses vs Superbugs, that “something more” was the use of phages, bacteria killing viruses. So what will Pete Moore offer us? Let’s keep you in suspense.
The book is certainly not a dull collection of facts. Moore has an engaging journalistic style that carries the reader along, despite the doom and gloom message. He takes us through all the dire killers, new and old (the “new” in the book’s title probably refers to Moore’s previous version, Killer Germs: Deadly Diseases of the Twenty-First Century, though this isn’t made clear in the text). They’re all there – plague, syphilis, anthrax etc. etc., plus the relatively newcomers like HIV/AIDS, Bird Flu (well, the latest version is a newcomer) and new variant CJD.
Moore is also very good on the subject of healthcare acquired infections – a political hot potato after the discovery of widespread MRSA in hospitals, and as Moore demonstrates, not one that has gone away just because there are anti-bacterial hand gel dispensers scattered around the wards. (It’s interesting that he observes it’s often the senior medical staff who don’t feel it’s necessary to make use of these dispensers.) In fact our whole attempt to counter killers seems half-doomed to failure, as practically anything we do to destroy the germs, apart from wipe them out with real destroyers like bleach (not exactly suitable for open wounds) gives them a chance to come up with a new resistance. Even worse, if a bacteria is over-exposed to (say) penicillin, it can also develop resistance to several other antibiotics. Like Viruses vs Superbugs, Moore mentions phages, but it’s in a brief chapter – if they sound interesting, get the other title as well for more detail.
The other message, which Moore doesn’t underline directly, but the thinking reader will receive, is just how dangerous air travel is. Forget crashing – it’s international travel that’s the killer. The reason most deadly diseases crop up around the world is that an infected carrier has hopped on a plane and taken something that would naturally have been quite restricted in its spread, on a journey to another continent It’s really possible to imagine a ban on all non-essential air travel to help humanity to survive. We have to ask ourselves whether a couple of weeks in the sun at an exotic location are worth it at the risk of spreading horribly painful and lethal diseases across the world. One impact this book ought to have (though I doubt it will) is an unexpected one of increasing the popularity of taking local vacations.
So is the verdict “not just gloom and doom”, or “if I’d wanted to depress myself I’d watch video tapes of 1970s soap operas”? It mostly is depression, I’m afraid. Perhaps the important message is that we don’t get blasé when all those warnings about bird flu or SARS seem to be false alarms. They were very real alarms, we just got lucky (at least, those of us who weren’t affected did) . The luck won’t continue. There will be more serious pandemics, whether from mutated bird flu or any of the other horrors in this book. This is a threat that makes everything terrorists have done relatively small beer. The war on these killer germs needs to be taken just as seriously – and Moore has done us all a service in bringing the situation clearly and understandably to us all. I can’t thank him for making me feel miserable, but I can support his cause in doing so.
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Review by Brian Clegg

Tuesday, 4 July 2006

Chloroform: the quest for oblivion – Linda Stratmann ****

Before there was anaesthetic, there was suffering. Surgery was a gruelling experience of agonizing pain that the surgeon had to hurry through at such speed that there was little time for making the best job of it. Linda Stratmann gives us an in-depth view of the rise and fall of chloroform, once touted as the perfect and safe anaesthetic, only to kill thousands of people.
Along the way, we hear of the various parallel discoveries of chloroform, initial confusion over just what it was and what it would do, and a whole host of examples of chloroform being used – well and badly, in surgery and for pleasure, in crime and in war.
Mostly it is a real pleasure, over and above anything that might be expected from a book on a relatively obscure aspect of medicine. The reason is that Stratmann does a wonderful job of capturing the feel of the time. She is at her best when relating a juicy chloroform story in full, such as the remarkable story of Adelaide Barrett’s murder of her husband with chloroform. It is also fascinating to see just how stubborn and unscientific many of the medical profession were. This applied to everything from the use of anaesthetic in the first place (many surgeons, especially in the battlefield, believed pain was an essential for the recovery process), to the incredibly parochial Scottish school who believed their method of using chloroform was totally safe, even though it meant ignoring deaths from badly administered anaesthesia.
The only place the book gets a bit dull is where Stratmann is relating case after case in quick succession. This only happens in a couple of chapters, but does get a little tedious. We would have been happy with a couple of examples – but the offending pages are easily skipped through. There’s also something of a surprise that though John Snow, the London anaesthetist, features considerably, there is no mention of Snow’s great achievement – the detective work to understand the outbreak of cholera, detailed in Sandra Hempel’s The Medical Detective. I know this isn’t directly mentioned, but it’s strange that Stratmann bothers to mention that Snow’s work is celebrated at a pub in Broadwick Street, but doesn’t mention cholera.
Altogether a fascinating insight into the origins of a relatively modern aspect of medicine – and one that has made possible all the remarkable operations we take for granted today.
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Review by Jo Reed

Broken Genius – Joel Shurkin *****

We are used to tales of the billionaire geniuses of Silicon Valley – this gripping scientific biography gives a balanced picture of the most bizarre and atypical of the great names of electronics, William Shockley.
Still widely thought of as the “father of the transistor”, Shockley’s role in the nascent electronics industry was much more complex. Consider two simplistic and frequently parroted versions of the Shockley myth. William Shockley was the man who invented the transistor. Wrong. Alternatively, Shockley had nothing to do with the invention of the transistor, but managed to bulldoze his way into the limelight, refusing to allow the real inventors to get visibility and muscling in on their Nobel prize. Also wrong.
Joel Shurkin, with access to a huge archive of material, takes us back through Shockley’s coldly administered childhood to his discovery of the joys of quantum mechanics, and the possibility of practical application of the theory to solid state electronics to replace the fragile and errant valve (vacuum tube). In those early years it became apparent that Shockley truly had an element of genius – he could see solutions instantly that others would take an age to work out, particularly in the statistical field. Probability and statistics are essential to quantum theory, and also to Shockley’s work during World War II, which, inspired by the British physicist Blackett’s development of Operational Research, resulted in Shockley and others producing the US equivalent, Operations Research – effectively the application of mathematical techniques to problem solving.
This problem solving aspect would remain with Shockley as he moved on to the next phase of his life and the Nobel prize for the development of the transistor. Here the complexity arises. The work resulting in the prize was largely done by Bardeen and Brattain. Although some of the original theory was Shockley’s there were plenty of others who could be included on that basis. His role in the actual project was as a hands-off project manager. Shurkin shows, though, that however unwarranted the award, B&B’s original transistor design was hardly practical, where the first effective design of a totally different kind of transistor was Shockley’s.
After the transistor, Shockley set up his own company which effectively started Silicon Valley, both in its location, and in its initial staff, who would go on to seed many of the hardware names of the Valley, notably including the founders of Intel. Shockley’s company was a failure, thanks to his bizarre management style that seemed to expect everyone in the organization to be his mental inferior. He then went on to totally destroy his reputation by discussing his belief that intelligence was hereditary, and it was important for the survival of the race that we prevent too much breeding from those with low intelligence (and, he implied, of inferior races).
One aspect of Shockley’s argument is true. The building blocks of intelligence are genetic (though what you do with that intelligence is largely influenced by environment). But that doesn’t mean, as many seemed to assume, that the children of people who haven’t done very well for themselves aren’t going to be intelligent. For that matter it doesn’t mean that intelligent parents will have intelligent children – simply that the child’s mental capabilities are determined by a combination of genes from both parents. Shockley, perhaps rightly upset by the way the social sciences tried to pretend there was nothing even to think about in the genetic aspect of intelligence, reacted by getting more extreme, and digging himself a pit from which he would never escape. Fatally, he not only supported the idea that the intelligence of an individual is linked to his or her genes, but also the unfounded concept that different racial and social groups have different levels of intelligence. It was, as Shurkin points out, a classical example of hubris resulting in nemesis.
The only fault in an otherwise great page-turner of a scientific biography is that Shurkin is either a little unsure of his history of science, or in the attempt to simplify to make the book readable (and it certainly is readable), he takes some of the facts over the border between simplicity and inaccuracy. For instance, he makes it sound as if Young was the first to challenge Newton’s idea of light being particles, where in fact there were plenty of Newton’s contemporaries like Huygens who believed light was a wave. In another example, we are told that Gilbert Lewis, who coined the word photon, was a British physicist. In fact he was an American chemist.
But this is a minor problem, and mostly occurs in the early part of the book where the scientific background is established. Shurkin had a dream subject in a man with such strong conflicting characteristics – and he made the most of it. After reading this book you’ll have a better idea of where Silicon Valley came from, but more importantly you’ll have an insight into the nature of an important scientist who is almost always described as a caricature of the real man. Recommended.
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Review by Brian Clegg