Sunday, November 26, 2006

A Mitsubishi Lifer

Once in a while, you'd come across a book which you couldn't place your finger on, which genre it belonged to, why such a book was ever written in the first place, and what the publisher was thinking of in terms of making money out of publishing it. Well, "The Blue-eyed Salaryman" is just such as book. It is a story about a westerner (an Irish, actually) who spent his earlier years travelling the world over and yet ended up as a paid employee - a salaryman - in one of Japan's largest conglomerates. Yet, the author is not recounting any significant achievement worthy of an inspiring lesson, or about an unusually unique life that would make people sit up.

Yes, he is unusual in that he was the first westerner to reach the manager-class in a Japanese MNC - Mitsubishi to be precise - in Japan, not in a branch of the conglomerate located in Europe or America. He gained his PhD in Japan, joined Mitsubishi under local terms, married a Japanese and, last recounted, is raising his family in Osaka, Japan. Not something inspiringly distinct that you would want to spend time reading about it at first thought. Yet, I was almost glued to the book because of the stories of the ordinariness that life in a Japanese MNC could be, the different characters in the form of his colleagues (all Japanese, of course), an attempt to get him match-made and the ultimate uncertainty that permanent employment in a Japanese firm would bring. Such things sometimes make for engrossing reading. In that sense this book is unusual. The book is written with much wit by Niall Murtagh, erstwhile Mitsubishi lifer and PhD in Artificial Intelligence. The former is what this book is about, not the AI part.

Interesting and enjoyable.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Googling for gold

While most of us know Google as THE Internet Search company, it is no less THE advertisement services driven company. Most users who have an internet presence, whether as a company or a personal web page such as a weblog (blog), already place Google's context sensitive ads into their web pages. This is a free affiliate program that anybody with a decent web page can apply for and obtain relatively easily. Money is generated for the web page owner through metrics such as CPM (cost per thousand) and CPC (Cost per Click). Many are just happy that the dollars and cents are trickling into their affiliate accounts with Google to bother too much about these metrics.

Are there any other means of earning money besides ads with Google? Do you know the inner workings of your Adsense membership programme and how to maximise your earnings? How about profitting from Adult sites? These, and many other less well known facts of Google advertising is explored in the the book, "Google Advertising Tools" by Harold Davis. The book is divided into 4 parts. The first 2 parts delves into how the Google uses the internet surfing habits of people to generate advertising eye-balls, which leads to part 2 on the details of Google's Adsense programme and how to maximise the amount of money you make.

Parts 3 and 4 focuses on how advertisers can maximise eye-balls through Google's AdWord programme and its related API (Application Programming Interface).

I suspect that Adsense users would not be that interested in AdWords and vice versa. But therein lies the attraction, or the bain, of this book - it is good for people who are more interested in making more money advertising or for people who want to drive business to their web sites through effective and customized ad placements. One doesn't have to read this book cover to cover before coming away with a few useful tips either way although I suspect that both parties would have preferred if their interest (making money advertising or advertising to make money) enjoyed greater coverage. As it is, both areas receive fairly even coverage.

One thing I learnt is that your website's Google Pagerank will increase the more other websites' webpages (and that include blogs) link to your website. So the next time you find other pages linking to your website or blogs (even deep-linking ones), be happy. That only means that someone values your content. This comes at the expense of bandwidth, of course, but then, that's why you publish, isn't it? On the other hand, if you have got Google adsense code, it can only be a good thing, right?

As always, O'Reilly titles are worth the time and money spent.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Living and leaving Singapore

Final Notes from a Great Island - Humphreys is very well-known among the Singapore newspaper reading public. For the last few years, he has been entertaining and informing Today readers through his regular columns. I must say that I am a fan of his, having been tickled often by his observation and experiences of life in Singapore. However, he has just left for Australia's Geelong to start the next phase of his life with his wife though, thankfully, he still writes the weekly column for Today. And why not. The internet has made communications so much more convenient. The only thing that the internet cannot do is to give a person a feel of life in a certain place while being in another. Neil certainly will not be able to write about Singapore as often and as intimately as he used to. But he has left behind for Singaporeans, and the wider expatriate community in Singapore, and perhaps the world, a book about his travels and observations in the oft neglected parts of this tiny island of Singapore.

In his inimitable way, "Final Notes from a Great Island - A Farewell to Singapore" relates his journeys and discoveries into places such as Lim Chu Kang where all sorts of farms, such as organic farms, goat farms, frog farms, etc., still exists in this otherwise highly urbanised island. Locals as well as expatriates should give Orchard Road a miss on weekends and public holidays for these farms, if nothing else, as a therapy against the hustle and bustle of city living. In the same vein, Neil writes about his Singapore Challenge of 'circum-navigating' Singapore's lush rainforests of reservoirs and nature reserve smack in the middle of the island. Indeed, as he notes, this is the green lung of the island. If quaintness is what you are looking for, then follow him through Queenstown, the Chua Chu Kang cemeteries and Haw Par Villa Park. If for titillation, then Geylang is a, ahem, must-go.

Personally, I was delighted that Neil visited Sembawang and wrote about the many places that I am familiar with, including Sembawang Park and the Jetty at the end of it. It brought back a lot of memories of my childhood. But I do have a gripe with his history. Neil mentioned the Terror Club as originating from the Americans. While the Terror Club near Admiralty Road East is now the domain of the American military personnel, the name originated from his countrymen during the time Singapore was its impregnable fortress and the Naval Base its home. 'Terror' was a wholly British invention. My dad used to work in the Naval Base in the 1950s and 1960s for the British, and he would often mention 'tear-lah', which is the Cantonese transliteration of 'Terror', in his conversations with mother. I didn't understand who or what he was referring to until much later. I have some links in my singaporelifetimes blog which document all these.

Notwithstanding this slight historical inaccuracy, Neil has done Singapore a favour with his book. I only discovered that he had written two other books, "Notes from an even smaller island" and "Scribbles from the same Island" on the same subject earlier, and they are probably well worth reading too.

Friday, May 19, 2006

In the name of Leonardo Da Vinci

First, there was Leonardo DiCaprio's name which brought to mind his more famous(?) namesake, Leonardo Da Vinci. I wouldn't be surprised that with the rise of DiCaprio's star a few years back (especialling in the tragi-epic 'Titanic') many babies have since been named Leonardo something. Well, we are not done with the Leonardo name. Three years back, Leonardo Da Vinci was again in the press, this time in the form of a novel with the unlikely title of The Da Vinci Code. Fast forward three years yesterday, Leonardo's name has come up again in a movie of the same name based on the same book starring mega-movie star Tom Hanks. This movie is helmed by non other the award winning Director, Ron Howard.

It was perhaps good for Leonardo Da Vinci that the recent revival of his name, particularly in the second instance, highlighted some of the works that he is best known for - the Mona Lisa and the Last Supper (of Christ). A whole new generation of people, both the young and the old today, are now more aware of these renaissance painters and inventors, including Issac Newton. Newton, or at least his grave in Westminster Abbey, was also featured in Dan Brown's novel of the same name. The latest reports suggest that this novel has sold 50 million copies.

However, the movie based on this novel has received mixed reactions at it premier in Cannes as well as in the press.

This is not unexpected because the book on which it is based made several very controversial claims: that Jesus did not die on the cross but married Mary Magdalene and had a child through her, that Judas conspired in the events leading up to his 'supposed' crucifixion (Mel Gibson would have been shocked with this claim, given his very passionate Passion of Christmovie, which he played with such conviction), that Emperor Constantine determined the canons of the Bible as we know it today (and in the process, excluded the Gnostic Gospels in the greatest conspiracy not only of our times but in all history), that St Peter was jealous of Mary Magdalene's relationship with Jesus, which explained why the Roman Catholic Church wanted to suppress and has suppressed all materials relating to Jesus and Mary Magdalene, giving opportunity to the fictional Leigh Teabing saying "history has been written by the 'winners'" in the Da Vinci Code story. This same phrase was repeated in a story on the Da Vinci Code by National Geographic, without attribution.

To me, these and other claims made in the guise of a novel are unsubstantiated, bald assertions, which unfortunately, many view as fact. Given the power of movies to sway the unsuspecting public, the insidious content in this book must be rebutted robustly, even if after 3 years. Fortunately, many historians and theologians, including the mass media such as Discovery Channel, have stepped up to the plate to fulfill this task. You can find them in books as well as on the internet.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Innovation in Asia

I should have written this book. No, no, I don't mean that this is badly written nor its material substandard. On the contrary, this is a marvellous book that grew out of MBA classes taught by the author at INSEAD's Singapore campus. Students in these classes typically consists of captains of industry, CEOs, Senior Executives and other influential people not only from Singapore, but throughout the Asian region. What I mean is that I wished I had this book around when I was doing my Masters Degree a couple of years ago. It would have been a tremendous source of reference for me as I was researching small and medium sized companies in Singapore then.

This book, "Inspire to Innovate" by Arnoud De Meyer and Sam Garg is chock-full of case studies from around the Asian region, in countries such as Singapore, Thailand, the Phillippines, Taiwan, India, etc. This breadth of business experience in the innovative process recounted in this book in itself is worth more than the paper it is printed on. The authors not only relate their stories, but also apply these experiences within the context of the innovation process and its management. While innovation and management processes, principles and practices are not new - many authors have already written extensively on it - what is refreshing in this book is its focus on small and medium sized businesses, with the odd addition of Samsung and the National Library Board which is a Singapore Statutory Board. So such obscure companies as Smart, Tiger Motors, Hindustan Lever, e-Chaupal, Li & Fung, Patkol, Aapico Hitech and other more well known companies such as Dilmah Tea, NIIT of India, Shin Satellite, etc. are used to illustrate how innovation can be realised in the Asian context. The authors also attempts to draw the differences between the Asian environment and the more often studied developed country environments to show how the commonly accepted innovation management practices need to diverge to be effective in the Asian context.

This is a truly unique book, and should be on the shelve of every executive in Asia who are thinking of how to introduce innovation into its organisation.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Innovating at Fedex

Whenever Innovation is mentioned, 3M, Dell, Xerox and Federal Express (Fedex) are often mentioned in the same breadth. These are some of the most successful and admired companies in the world. So when I chanced upon the book, "Fedex Delivers - How the world's leading shipping company keeps innovating and outperforming the competition", it seemed 'passe' to me. So what would another new book (this book was first published just last year - 2005) say about Fedex that has not already been widely recounted, discussed, analysed and dissected in countless learned articles already? But I am always interested in a good story, even if the story is already familiar. I am glad I picked up the book, because the author, Madan Mirla, has given a new 'spin' on the topic of innovation, if only because he is a Fedex insider telling the story of innovation from 'first-hand'.

Of course, some parts of the book read like many management type books, discussing the 'n' ways of achieving your goals, etc., but Mirla has interspersed many of the principles he espouses with examples from Fedex's history. This in itself is worth the read. In the course of reading this book, I jotted down some points that I found interesting:

  1. International growth (Internationlisation) is important. Fedex grew from a company managing the overnight delivery of US Federal government cheques (that's where its name originated) to a worldwide shipping company;

  2. Innovation can be a very simple act but it can have hugely significant impact on the organisation;

  3. Innovation can fail, and if its lessons are learnt well, it can grow the employee and the company;

  4. Employees are important, and they need to grow within the organisation, especialliy knowledge workers. Turnover is costly and reduces the company's capacity to innovate. In an age where outsourcing and contracting is becoming popular, this point is worth noting;

  5. Related to the above, a organisation must become a learning organisation;

  6. Employees can be encouraged to innovate through Permission Statements - a very interesting management innovation in itself;

  7. A work-life balance is important in the innovation process. Given that people work from 8 to 8 nowadays, its a point worth noting again;

  8. Innovation often comes from unexpected sources and through the combination of diverse knowledge and disciplines. Therefore, a broadbased, cooperative approach is important in the innovation process.

Some of these principles may already be familiar to you. No matter. The Fedex examples cited will give new perspectives to them. I have profited much from this book. I think you will too.

Friday, February 03, 2006

March of Computers

Technology has been moving at a fast, some might say a breathtaking, pace. Compared to the period before World War II, inventions and innovations in Technology has been varied but many of them have been brought together to give us the modern electronic computers. I say varied because today's computers are a combination of vision, enterprise, mechanical engineering, electrical/electronic genius, physics, psychology, military designs and ambitions, business and consumerism. How did so many factors bring about the evolution of the modern computer? What were the driving forces and how were the technological challenges overcomed? Who invented the internet (certainly not Al Gore) and why was the PDA invented? What of the modern smartphones which can almost double-up as computers?

Swedin and Ferro answers many of these questions in their book "Computers - The Life Story of a Technology". This book offers a broad sweep of the history of computers, from prehistoric times till today. They offer a chronology of the key developments from 35,000 BC onwards! Obviously, such a wide scope will mean that their narrative can only be brief on each event that they describe. For example, the story of Intel only got 6 pages of narrative, 9 if you count incidental references, and the account of the development of the Internet did't start until page 118 of this 166 page book. The book is largely chronological although towards the latter half of the book, it tended to jump back and forth, if only because many related technologies saw significant developments at about the same time.

If you are looking for a detailed and comprehensive history, this is not the right book, but if you want a broad sweep, then this book is a good starting point to explore more deeply the key events in the development of the computer. For example, your interest may be piqued enough about the story of the CRAY supercomputer to want to pick up a book devoted to it, or about Xerox's PARC, or about Intel, or about IBM and their development of their very successful System/360, or even about more remote stories about how Eckert and Mauchly built the world's first commercial computer, the UNIVAC, and how their ideas were essentially taken from that of John Atanasoff (now that's a name you rarely come across). There are many stories in this book about people who agonised over the problems of the day, and how they went about solving those problems. Indeed, without their genius and preseverance, the story of computers would be a very different one today.

This is, in some sections, an engrossing book and it will not take too long to finish it. But there is enough in this book that you will come away learning something new.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Harry Potter and the rest of history

There is nobody who doesn't know (that's a double negative) who Harry Potter is now, unless the person is an illiterate or is one who cannot afford or have no access to a public library. I know this describes a large swath of planet earth, but this is another issue.

I am not reviewing the excellent Harry Potter books here. They need no introduction nor recommendation from me. They just sell on the strength of word of mouth. Perhaps because of its runaway success, or because of its subject (wizardry), many people, particularly those on the extreme of the Christian Right, have come out strongly against these stories because of the inherent lifestyle that it promotes - sorcery and witchcraft (actually, more like wizardcraft). There are those who even burnt the books publicly to demonstrate what they think of the stories.

Well, there are, of course, others who go to the other extreme and view Harry Potter as the Divine incarnate. One such book is "God, the Devil and Harry Potter" by John Killinger. Killinger is a liberal Christian whose defence of the Potter novel (against the extreme conservative Christian Right) has, in my view, swung to the other extreme, so much so that he seems to hold the Potter novels as the exact parallel to the Bible. He probably would have named the Potter novels "The Harry Potter version of the Holy Bible", if he could. In his book, Killinger draws many parallels between the events described in "Harry Potter and the Sorcerers Stone" with the account of Jesus' birth and upbringing. For example, Harry Potter's humble abode under the staircase of the Dursleys' house is compared to Jesus' own humble beginnings. Jesus' birth was accompanied by the threat of Herod's murderous intentions, just as Potter's was from Voldemort's attempt to kill him (resulting in that 'lightning' scar on Potter's forehead). Killinger even points out that Potter was eventually to be grouped under Gryffindor house, which has the lion as its symbol. Coincidentally (or by design) the symbol of the ancient Israeli tribe of Judah, through which Jesus descended, is also a lion. Actually Singapore is also known as the Lion City, but no, perhaps its too small, insignificant or Asian to merit any attention. Of course, the other reason is that the boy Jesus never came here.

So far, it has been bearable, but Killinger stretches it when he continues to draw these parallels against extra-Biblical sources. The Bible is silent on Jesus' life up to his 30'th birthday. While we do have records of Jesus' childhood and youth, such as his family fleeing to Egypt with him to avoid Herod and the boy Jesus accompanying his parents to the temple (Gospel of Luke 2:39-52), virtually nothing else is recorded in the Bible about his youth. So Killinger turns to extra-biblical sources such as the Coptic Gospel of Thomas and the apocryphal book of James to draw further parallels about Jesus' early life with that of Harry Potter's in the Dursley's household. These books are not as authoritative as the Bible, and certainly have not undergone as great a scrutiny for factual accuracy as the Bible has been subject to over the last 2000 years. Along the way, he also mentioned that Jesus once went to England with Joseph of Arimathea, which explained how the Holy Grail, which was the cup that Jesus used at the last supper, eventually ended up in Glastonbury, in Somerset, England.

Enough is enough. The Bible and the record of Jesus' life is turning into fiction, if you agree with Killinger's thesis and his fantasies. Here, fact has turned into fantasy, as much as Harry Potter's book is fantasy. At least Rowling does not hide that fact! The sad thing is that the Bishop of the United Methodist Church commends the book to its would-be readers!

I do not recommend this book to readers as a good book. But of course readers might want to find out for themselves the art of turning fact into fiction. If this is what interests you, then there is no better book than this.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Benign Superpower?

Ever since the demise of the Soviet Union (USSR), political and military tensions in the world has been reduced significantly. There is now just one superpower - the United States of America. It is one power that is reluctant to make use of its military and political might to dominate other countries. Historically, it has never been a colonizing nation, except perhaps in the Philippines. The era of the Cold War is over, and a new World Order of a freer and more peaceful world is the dividend of the victory of capitalism over communism. Even China today is communist in name only. Many of its leaders have imbibed American ideals and scholarship through their years studying in the US and are adapting what they learnt in reshaping the Chinese nation and economy. By all measures, they are succeeding.

Unfortunately, while the part about the Cold War's demise, communism and China are true today, the sanguine vision of the New World Order has not panned out the way the sole superpower first envisioned or the world hoped for. Chief among the events that changed this is the 9/11 incident. Today, America is more guarded (fortress comes to mine when I look at the US Embassy in Singapore) and it has sent its troops to invade other countries (Iraq and Afghanistan), although not for reasons of domination but liberation. A new enemy in place of communism has arisen, that of terrorism, which is led by extreme elements of one of the greatest religions today - Islam.

How did these develop? Why did 9/11 happen? Why did Europe (except Great Britain) disagree so much with the US over the Iraq invasion? Why are many terrorists typically of Pakistan, Malaysian, Indonesia and Arabic descent? What is wrong with American leaderhip today?

In his book, "Beyond the Age of Innocence", Mr Kishore Mahbubani attempts to address these and other issues that have become the staple of world affairs in the last 15 years, but mainly occurring in the last 5 years. Mr Mahbubani is well positioned to discuss these issues. He was Singapore's Ambassador to the U.N. for 2 terms and is now the Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore. Of Pakistani descent, he grew up in Singapore but has spent many years in the US. Thus he has first hand experience and encounters with the many topics that he seeks to address in this book. As a fellow Singaporean, I can appreciate some of the arguments that Mr Mahbubani advances, and the position he is coming from. Some have argued that he is not stating anything new, and that may very well be true. But I think this book has succeeded in bringing together many strands of the underlying issues and forces that has shaped the world today.

One may disagree with him on his wide ranging analyses and propositions, but one cannot fault his earnestness in trying to help a friend (the US) to see the world through an outsider's eyes and thereby convince them to be more circumspect in matters of foreign policy, economic policy and social policy decision-making. He makes the point time and again that the world is a global village where decisions by the US often affects, for better or worse, the livelihood of peoples half a world away. Being a sole superpower is a heavy burden, not least of which many of the world's ills can be traced back to the innocuous decisions made by that superpower. Mr Mahbubani argues that leadership of the highest caliber is expected of America, that it comes with being a superpower, but more so because it comes from a nation that historically, has crafted policy and acted in a benign fashion - a nation that has no stomach for colonizing and domination of other peoples and nations. (Exceptions can be identified though, as Mr M also points out in this book).

This is an absorbing book and the reader will come away enlightened on many of the underlying issues, causes and effects of what is happening in the world today. The time spent on the book is well worth it, whether, at the end, you agree with him or not.