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David Walker (Melbourne, Australia)

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Guns, Germs, and Steel
Guns, Germs, and Steel
by Jared Diamond
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 24.70
96 used & new from CDN$ 7.18

5.0 out of 5 stars Magnificent cross-disciplinary synthesis, Nov. 5 2000
This review is from: Guns, Germs, and Steel (Paperback)
In a world of myopic specialisation, here's a monument to informed generalism - and a book that makes both geography and liberalism respectable again. For Diamond argues cogently that chance geographical factors have strongly influenced the distribution of wealth and poverty in the world today. He believes, essentially, that the people of the Fertile Crescent, China and Western Europe were given the best opportunities to domesticate plants and animals - grains with harvestable seeds, animals which could be herded, and so on. They also had the best chance to build up resistance to diseases.
The simplicity of the book's key ideas has no doubt aided its popularity. And Diamond downplays questions such as the Chinese Mystery - why did European prevail over that of China, which possesed a clear technological lead up to 1300 or so. Here Diamond simply offers up in brief explanation the new and credible orthodoxies popularised by Joel Mokyr's "The Lever of Riches" (a book of similarly detailed narrative style) and David Landes's "The Wealth and Poverty of Nations".
Diamond's story is the story not of Britain's advantage over Shanghai, but of Eurasia's advantage over Africa, Australia and America. And in truth this is story enough for one book.
Some on the political and cultural right seem annoyed that Diamond is undercutting conservative stances on race and culture. There's more than a little irony here: 20 years ago Diamond's thesis would have been considered deplorably right-wing, neglecting the malign influence of European colonialism and neo-colonialism as documented by Marx and his successors. Now that the Berlin Wall's demolition has transformed Marxsts and post-modernists into fringe players, we're finally able to start an intelligent, nuanced discussion of global history.

Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos
Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos
by Mitchell M. Waldrop
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 15.54
72 used & new from CDN$ 0.01

4.0 out of 5 stars Flawed yet profoundly illuminating, Nov. 5 2000
The complex, self-organising interactive system is a paradigm - like evolution or probability theory - with the power to illuminate vast areas of human experience. "Complexity" brings to life a notion far more important than the much-hyped "chaos", explaining the notions of men like John Holland and Stuart Kauffman.
Most notably, the book illuminates the operations of markets and ecosystems. The two fields turn out to have more in common that their respective supporter groups have usually realised, at least since Alfred Marshall's abortive attempt to put a biological spin on economics. Waldrop spends too much time on economist Brian Arthur, but the weaknesses of orthodox, hyper-mathematical economics highlighted in the book's early pages are real enough.
And Waldrop knows how to interweave a tale of institutional evolution with the broader tale of an idea's growth.

Writing for the Web (Writers' Edition) (Self-Counsel Writing Series)
Writing for the Web (Writers' Edition) (Self-Counsel Writing Series)
by Crawford Kilian
Edition: Paperback
24 used & new from CDN$ 0.01

3.0 out of 5 stars Signs of life for Web writing, Sept. 27 2000
This thin and flatly-written volume will disappoint anyone hoping for a Web writing manifesto. Kilian brings no new research and an unimpressive bunch of case studies. But by making the case once again for caring about Web text, Kilian's book serves a useful purpose.
Many pages of the book are taken up with advice applicable to writing for any medium: understand your reader's viewpoint, use the "active voice", avoid relying on your spell checker. Devotees of that classic writers' how-to manual, Strunk and White's The Elements of Style, will find a startling amount of familiar material. So will devotees of Web usability expert Jakob Nielsen and his Alertbox site. A substantial slice of Kilian's book could well have been gathered off a handful of well-known Web sites.
But Kilian also makes a series of points that have been missed or underemphasised in discussions of Web writing to date:
* The Web demands your writing deliver "joltage". A former chief executive of the Fairfax newspaper group liked to compare the newspaper-reading experience to a warm bath. Web reading, by comparison, is a 30-second shower - get in, get the job done, wake you up, don't hang around. As Kilian puts it: "Computers condition us for high joltage. A 'jolt' is an emotional reward that follows a prescribed action ... We feel deprived if we don't get some sort of jolt at regular intervals, so we go where we hope to find more stimulation which, on the Web, means web sites."
* Beware old-style marketers who see the Web as another opportunity to pump a message at a commercial audience. In most media, the marketer hunts the customer down and delivers a broadcast or printed spiel that can be hard to avoid. On the Web, the customer comes looking for the transaction, with a million other sites a single mouse-click away. Research shows Web users are uncommonly likely to bolt at the sight of an old-style marketing pitch. A very few good Web marketers, on the other hand, already understand that the message of a commercial Web site must rely on a more subtle link with a brand's values.
* The Web suits "response" writing which prompts the user to carry out an activity. In the offline commercial world an entire marketing discipline - direct response copywriting - has evolved to offer users spcific benefits if they carry out particular actions. Indeed, the long-established rules of direct response advertising copywriting often look remarkably like Web writers need to import these direct response lessons, in just the same way that Web interface designers need to understand how to convince users to click on the appropriate screen buttons. "The Web is a culture of impatience," writes Kilian. "Effective appeals offer quick and painlesss ways to respond".
Killian could and should have given his readers more insights on issues like these, rather than recycling better-known guidelines. His book does not deserve whole-hearted recommendation. But it's nice to see Web writing getting some of the attention it deserves.

Killer Content: Strategies for Web Content and E-Commerce
Killer Content: Strategies for Web Content and E-Commerce
by Mai-lan Tomsen
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 52.50
17 used & new from CDN$ 2.22

1.0 out of 5 stars Right question, astonishingly bland answer, Aug. 20 2000
Killer Content is a killer dud. If it were posted on a Web site, you'd be surfing away within seconds. And that's a pity, because its topic - using content to drive transactions - cries out for examination.
Just what do you put on a Web site to make people transact? The answers run all the way from "an email address" to "a $2 million personalisation system". The range of Web sites out there and the scarcity of profit-makers suggest most people are doing something wrong.
But Mai-lan Thomsen takes the opposite approach: every new technique and technology is worthy of praise. So Killer Content takes you on a long, dull, uncritical trip around every idea that ever rated an article in some fat business-technology magazine. "Relevant" articles, "targeted" banner ads, "usable" navigation, and a hundred more - all of these are equally worthy of a few paragraphs. All, says Thomsen, will help you create a successful "value exchange". Do everything that everyone else is doing, and you'll be fine. The subject cries out for good data, vigorous analysis, strong opinions. Thomsen offers only pap, written in the prose style of a second-rate technology vendor white paper.
As other reviewers have noted, Thomsen's lack of critical judgement has been exposed by the collapse of the tech stock boom. Sites like Salon and TheStreet, lauded in Killer Content, have run into difficulties precisely because they couldn't marry excellent content to a decent business plan.
I manage and write about content-rich transaction sites for a living. Yet no other Amazon order has moved from my mailbox to my don't-read-again pile faster than this sad tome.

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