Review of Brick By Brick: How LEGO Rewrote the Rules of Innovation and Conquered the Global Toy Industry by David Robertson and Bill Breen

July 8, 2013 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Reviews 

SFFaudio Review

Brick By Brick - How Lego Rewrote The Rules Of Innovation And Conquered The Global Toy IndustryBrick By Brick: How LEGO Rewrote The Rules Of Innovation And Conquered The Global Toy Industry
By David Robertson and Bill Breen; Read by Thomas Vincent Kelly
Approx. 10 Hours 23 Minutes [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Random House Audio
Published: June 25, 2013
ISBN: 9780449806524
Themes: / Non-Fiction / Business / LEGO / STAR WARS / Denmark / Copyfight /

Sample |MP3|

I’m not one for business books, and this is explicitly a business book. The closest I’ve come to one, in the last decade, was Joseph Finder’s corporate espionage thriller Paranoia. On the other hand, I really am one for LEGO and Brick By Brick: How LEGO Rewrote The Rules Of Innovation And Conquered The Global Toy Industry is an audiobook about The LEGO Group.

Most of the book is about the recent history of LEGO, how it became unprofitable, and how it, through controlled innovation, recovered from that unprofitably. Along the way there is a fair amount about the company’s history – and even more importantly about the philosophy behind the “system” of The LEGO Group’s core product, the LEGO bricks themselves.

I started with LEGO in the mid-1970s, and barring a few pieces (lost, vacuumed, and stolen) along the way I still have much of it. But, similar to many other AFOLs (adult fans of LEGO) I experienced a decline in interest in LEGO as I entered my teens. As a kid I appreciated that LEGO allowed you to build your own toys, as a tween I programmed my own robotic LEGO creations (LEGO LOGO for Apple II) – but shortly thereafter the corporation seemed somehow go off track – creating products that were less LEGO sytem than LEGO branded toys. That is until around the mid-1990s. And that’s about when my re-invigoration of interest in LEGO started. No coincidence there, as this was also about the same time as the company’s financial revival. It seemed that the more I got more into LEGO the more the company became financially viable – but, of course, it was actually the reverse.

Indeed, Brick By Brick is essentially Robertson and Breen trying to figure out how the company works, where it went wrong, and how it recovered. In doing this they have looked at a number of failed projects, how they came to fail, how the company reorganized itself and how, with help from both adult LEGO fans and child LEGO fans they learned to operate without patent protection.

One of the more interesting comparisons between companies that Robertson and Breen make is that of LEGO to Apple. The parallels between the companies’ aesthetic philosophies (and cult like devotion by their customers) are many. I myself am a committed Apple iPhone user, not because I buy into the ecosystem, but rather because of the sculptured discipline of the technology. Likewise, though Megablocks and other LEGO competitors are making bricks that are 100% compatible with (and cheaper) than LEGO I am scrupulously careful to weed out MEGABLOCKS and other “fake lego” from my collection. The iPhone’s competitors aren’t really competitors, and the LEGO system’s competitors aren’t really competitors.

Back to the book, David Robertson and Bill Breen talk about a number of LEGO lines that I like, particularly the CITY, SPACE, and CASTLE lines but they also explain the thinking behind popular licensed IPs like STAR WARS, INDIANA JONES, and THE LORD OF THE RINGS. Several chapters cover the creation of the successful BIONCLE line (originally conceived as a line called “VOODOO HEADS”), the innovative board game division (that sneakily gets moms to buy more LEGO), and the massively expensive failure of the LEGO UNIVERSE project (an ambitious project aimed at disrupting LEGO’s own core market). And that last one is one of the most fascinating sections of Brick By Brick. By trying to make the experience perfect, by trying to produce a graphically rich massively multiplayer online game without bugs, then charging a whopping $40 to start playing it LEGO screwed up royally. The failure of the LEGO Universe project is all the more ironic in that a lone computer game programmer, Markus “Notch” Persson, came to create a sucessful kind of digital competitor to LEGO system, in the form of Minecraft. Peterson’s success, using almost no resources and no money, make the error of LEGO hierarchy all the clearer. But in an even more ironic move LEGO has since produced a Minecraft set!

In my view the only thing missing from Brick By Brick is talk about the very successful, collectible Minifigures line (now up to Series 10). To my ears Minifigs get very short shrift in Brick By Brick. I’d love to hear a two or three hour audiobook about that alone.

There’s very little to say about narrator. Thomas Vincent Kelly is a relatively new narrator, his reading is clear and precise, like the LEGO system. The occasional Danish place-name pronunciation, and the names of the LEGO products themselves are the only real narrative challenges. Kelly delivers.

David Robertson: The Story of LEGO from BrightSightGroup on Vimeo.

Posted by Jesse Willis

Review of The Unincorporated Man by Dani Kollin and Eytan Kollin

February 5, 2010 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Reviews 

SFFaudio Review

TANTOR MEDIA - The Unincorporated Man by Dani Kollin and Eytan KollinThe Unincorporated Man
By Dani Kollin and Eytan Kollin; Read by Todd McLaren
2 MP3-CDs – Approx. 24 Hours 30 Minutes [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Tantor Media
Published: May 2009
ISBN: 9781400161720
Themes: / Science Fiction / Utopia / Dystopia / Time Travel / Slavery / Economics / Business / Cryonics / Immortality / Virtual Reality / Philosophy / Law / Alaska / Colorado / Los Angeles / Switzerland / Nanotechnology / Space Elevator /

The Unincorporated Man is a provocative social/political/economic novel that takes place in the future, after civilization has fallen into complete economic collapse. This reborn civilization is one in which every individual is incorporated at birth and spends many years trying to attain control over his or her own life by getting a majority of his or her own shares. Life extension has made life very long indeed. Now the incredible has happened: a billionaire businessman from our time, frozen in secret in the early twenty-first century, is discovered and resurrected, given health and a vigorous younger body. Justin Cord is the only unincorporated man in the world, a true stranger in this strange land. Justin survived because he is tough and smart. He cannot accept only part ownership of himself, even if that places him in conflict with a civilization that extends outside the solar system to the Oort Cloud. People will be arguing about this novel and this world for decades.

Even though I had never heard of the authors I like this book right from the start. The title reminded me of a Philip K. Dick novel called The Unteleported Man. There are probably a whole bunch of SF books following the formula “The (negative attribution) Man”, with The Invisible Man perhaps being the first of them. But there’s a lot more to like about this novel than the title alone. Among the pleasures it brings is good, old-fashioned idea based SF. It has been quite a while since I was so intellectually engaged by a novel’s central premise. And The Unincorporated Man has one. Set on a future Earth The Unincorporated Man is fundamentally different in both tone and scope than most SF novels I’ve read recently. Authors Dani and Eytan Kollin have envisioned a future in which the institution known as “the corporation” has replaced the convention of “person.” When born each child has stock of 1000 shares issued in his or her name. 10 percent of these stocks are held by each parent, the government gets another 5 percent and the rest is held in trust until the age of majority after which the balance of the stock is given to the child-cum-adult. He or she can then sell, or keep his or her stocks as they so desire. Holding a majority of your own stock insures relative autonomy (based on the amount above 50% you hold). The primary difficulty comes when you realize that you’ll need to invest in yourself. If you want an education you’ll need to pay for it. But without an education the pay won’t be much. So, you can either get education money by working at a low-wage job, and deriving whatever profit percentage your current stock level allows, or by selling your stock off for cash. This typically manifests itself in the majority of humanity not owning majority in themselves. With the possibility of living for centuries, thanks to the ubiquitous nanotechnology, you’d be wise to invest in an education. But in so doing you’ll loose control of your majority, and thus perhaps have to work at jobs that your shareholders choose, take vacations when your shareholders agree and generally have your life dictated to you by those that hold your stock. Why not just take the money and loaf? Who cares what the shareholders say? They can’t make you work can they? Well, yes they can. The corporate system is enforced by a forced mental audit that is applicable whenever shareholders think a corporation, who they hold stock in, is committing malfeasance (shirking their job, deliberately getting fired, etc.). Every corporation is trackable, thanks to GPS-like implants, and is thus ultimately accountable to his or her shareholders. It is the ultimate invasive tyranny, a slavery to the bottom line, a profit motive enforced by an invisible hand that you shook a deal with.

But things aren’t all doom and gloom. Those who are lucky enough to have been born with enough money, drive, intelligence, talent or beauty are able to do pretty much whatever they like with their time – that is assuming they don’t loose too much of their stock in luxuries or in judgments rendered against them in civil lawsuits. You can live like a king, wear any kind of clothing you like, read the newsies and travel the world in an endless party. But, as the centuries have rolled past it seems that fewer and fewer people have found it fashionable (or is the correct word possible?) to retain or even re-seek their majority stock. After all, in their nanotechnological society material abundance sees that no-one starves, no-one remains un-housed. Freedom, it seems, is just out of fashion. Enter Justin Cord and his unincorporated status.

I really liked this novel, but it isn’t without a few caveats. I found the fascinating society portrayed to be the most interesting thing about The Unincorporated Man. The characters are all pretty stiff and the problems facing Jason Cord, our hero, were far less interesting than they were useful in exploring this strange new society. Like many novels I review this one suffers most greatly from excessive page count. At 480 pages the novel takes 24.5 hours to listen to. I’d have preferred the novel with a steadier editorial hand. The editor could have done two relatively easy things. First he or she could have cut out a lot of the filler. I’m not just talking about empty sentences, there are many scenes that could have been eliminated or described in just a sentence or two. There are, for instance, two big court cases in this nove. Would it have been impossible to tell this story in one? Second, there was a useless detour along the way. I enjoyed it, but don’t see any reason it was needed in this novel. It could have been easily explored separately, in another novel. Dani Kollin and Eytan Kollin wanted to talk about the relatively unexplored idea, a social scourge in the form of really vivid virtual reality. Larry Niven did something similar with his idea of the “tasp,” but that wasn’t exactly VR. If you could live your whole life in an artificial reality that was extremely cheap why wouldn’t you? The answer, cooked up by Kollins, is less persuasive than I’d have hoped. And again it doesn’t really need to be in this particular novel. They foresee a coming global catastrophe created not by ecological destruction, but rather by an addictive technological neuropathology. That’s great, but like I said it doesn’t need to be in this novel. When a false reality is far more enjoyable than a real one why should we care about the real one? Good question. Just don’t ask it here.

Narrator Todd McLaren, who I first encountered in Richard K. Morgan’s Altered Carbon |READ OUR REVIEW|, is very talented. He mispronounce one or two words. “Concomitant.” being one of them. McLaren isn’t called to do many accents here, but he gives voice to a fairly large cast of characters. There are also several scenes in which he is required to portray a man giving impassioned speeches to crowds. These don’t sound like shouts, thankfully, but instead give the impression of a strained voice, speaking so as to be heard.

Posted by Jesse Willis

Aural Noir Review of Paranoia by Joseph Finder

September 9, 2009 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Aural Noir, Reviews 

Aural Noir: Review

Macmillan Audio - Paranoia by Joseph FinderParanoia
By Joseph Finder; Read by Scott Brick
Audible Download – 13 Hours 8 Minutes [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Macmillan Audio
Published: July 2009
Provider: Audible.com
Themes: / Thriller / Espionage / Business / Crime / Corporate Culture /

Adam Cassidy is 26 and a low-level employee at a high-tech corporation who hates his job. When he manipulates the system to do something nice for a friend, he finds himself charged with a crime. Corporate Security gives him a choice: prison – or become a spy in the headquarters of their chief competitor, Trion Systems. They train him and feed him inside information. Now at Trion, he’s a star, skyrocketing to the top. He finds he has talents he never knew he possessed. He’s rich, drives a Porsche, lives in a fabulous apartment, and works directly for the CEO. He’s dating the girl of his dreams. His life is perfect. All he has to do to keep it that way is betray everyone he cares about and everything he believes in. But when he tries to break off from his controllers, he finds himself in way over his head, where nothing is what it seems and no one can really be trusted. And then the REAL nightmare begins…

I quite enjoyed this audiobook. That surprised me quite a bit. I was fairly skeptical going in. Books about business are often too much like self-help books. At worst they can be all full of untestable advice, formulaic reformulations of Sun Tzu’s The Art Of War, dogmatic variations on Machiavelli’s The Prince or even, horror of horrors, creating their own Baconian-style methodology (writing lists of commonalities). But, I told myself, this is a business thriller and not a business book, so I gave it a try. Now,after reading this thriller I think I’d be up for reading a good book on real world corporate espionage. It might be more interesting than any other kind of non-fiction business book I’ve read. A few other things struck me about Paranoia. First, Joseph Finder can write. This isn’t Oprah fiction, this literature that fits in somewhere in between John Grisham and Nelson DeMille. Second, there are a few twists and turns along the fairly predictable path. Some of these came rather unexpectedly. Those being generally in a good way. Third, Adam Cassidy, our flawed hero, is a fairly likable protagonist. This is helped by having the story told first person (and narrated the ever lovable Scott Brick). As to the novel’s formula, there were a couple of rough patches. At several points throughout the novel Finder seems to make a special effort to distance Cassidy from the techie world he works in. This felt a bit odd for the story, but it seems like a ploy to make a thriller set in the iPhone world more mainstream than it really is. At certain points Finder has Cassidy far less familiar with his tech business than he should be. In my experience techies usually don’t think of their toys as mere tools. I’ve never worked for Palm or Apple or Research In Motion (they make the BlackBerry), but I’m betting that the folks who work there are a lot more techie than Adam Cassidy. Another issue, the family and friends felt constructed into the plot – put there to provide a break from the main thrust of the story. Despite this I found myself not too upset with the author’s manipulation. Scott Brick again probably helped here. I’m not convinced he’s the best narrator for a lot of novels I hear him reading, but for those told first person, I must admit he’s got to be one of the best. Lastly, as with the character being blatantly aimed at the mass market, rather than more realistic for his position, there is comparable problem with the novel’s title. Sure there is a bit of paranoia in Paranoia – but that title has more to do with crappy generic book titling culture than the book itself. Corporate suits get there way on this all the time, and we consumers aren’t calling them on it. I would much rather read We Can Remember It For You Wholesale than Total Recall. The first tells me something about the story.

I picked up Paranoia during Audible.com’s free giveaway of the audiobook a few weeks back. After getting my first taste for free I think I’d be willing to pony up an Audible credit for the next Joseph Finder novel to come out. One Audible reviewer gave the novel a low star review because it has “more F-Bomb’s in it than any other book that I’ve read.” Thinking back, I can’t say I remember that many. The odd “Fuck!” now and then was present, but given the circumstances Cassidy is dealing with from chapter to chapter leaving them out would have been far more noticeable than having them there. Real drama tends to have swearing. I don’t usually like to talk about adaptations of audiobooks into other mediums. My ususal thinking is that fiction is best in the audiobook form, but I realized about two thirds of the way through that Paranoia might be improved further. There is a chapterized serial cliff-hanger feel to it that is similar to that of some of the best of modern television programs (the likes of Dexter, Breaking Bad and Weeds). Thematically, of course, this theoretical television adaptation would be far more similar to the short lived Fox TV series Profit. If there is going to be an adaptation of this novel, I suggest it be to cable TV, if only to keep the all the swearing.

Posted by Jesse Willis

FREE @ Audible.com: Paranoia by Joseph Finder

August 4, 2009 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Aural Noir, Online Audio 

Aural Noir: Online Audio

Macmillan Audio (Audio Renaissance) released an unabridged version of Paranoia by Joseph Finder back in 2004. Now the audiobook is FREE to all Audible.com account holders. It’s available right now and for the next few days. Here’s a “radio ad” for the book |MP3|

Macmillan Audio - Paranoia by Joseph FinderParanoia
By Joseph Finder; Read by Scott Brick
FREE Audible Download – 13 Hours 8 Minutes [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Macmillan Audio
Published: July 2009
Provider: Audible.com
Adam Cassidy is 26 and a low-level employee at a high-tech corporation who hates his job. When he manipulates the system to do something nice for a friend, he finds himself charged with a crime. Corporate Security gives him a choice: prison – or become a spy in the headquarters of their chief competitor, Trion Systems. They train him and feed him inside information. Now at Trion, he’s a star, skyrocketing to the top. He finds he has talents he never knew he possessed. He’s rich, drives a Porsche, lives in a fabulous apartment, and works directly for the CEO. He’s dating the girl of his dreams. His life is perfect. All he has to do to keep it that way is betray everyone he cares about and everything he believes in. But when he tries to break off from his controllers, he finds himself in way over his head, where nothing is what it seems and no one can really be trusted. And then the REAL nightmare begins…

There’s a free |PDF| version available too.

Posted by Jesse Willis