The Annotated Mona Lisa is a great introduction to art history!

As good as I can be at certain things, I have to admit that I have absolutely no artistic talent. It’s not just that I am mediocre, I am terrible at it! I can’t dance, I can’t sing, I can’t paint, I can’t play an instrument, I can’t sculpt and my handwriting is illegible.

As I do appreciate art, despite not knowing anything about it, I felt I needed a primer to it. The Annotated Mona Lisa clearly met that need. It’s easy to read, organized chronologically and full of engaging anecdotes.

You can buy it at:

Everything bad is good for you :)

I have not read Steven Johnson’s book, but after watching tonight’s episode of 24 and seeing the complex storylines of today’s TV shows, movies and video games, I am starting to buy the premise. Today’s popular culture is so much more sophisticated than the one from 20 years ago. You have to be mentally engaged not to get lost in the shows, to try to guess the twist ending in the movies (e.g.; The Illusionist) or to solve the video games. After watching Lost or 24 or for that matter Sex and the City or Desperate Housewives, watching even 15 minutes of Dallas or the Dukes of Hazard is unbearably painful!

As I see today’s 8 year olds customize their cell phones, chat on IM, blog, create profiles on MySpace, play complex games and hold intelligent conversations, I am not worried about the next generation’s ability to find ways to challenge itself and reach its intellectual potential. I would prefer if they were also intellectually stimulated in school, but that will the topic of another post.

In the meantime, go indulge in your guilty pleasures. They are actually good for you!

Non sequitur: This season of 24 is a bit disappointing. I am not as hooked yet as I was the previous seasons. That said, the topics are eerily believable, and I was shocked (in a good way) but the ending of the fourth hour! Fingers crossed!

iPhone: Love the Product, Skeptical about the Market

I just watched Steve Job’s presentation of the iPhone.

Steve Jobs really knows how to put on a show. The device seems great. I have not played with it and would love to see how easy it really is to type on the device, but from what I have seen and read, I really like the interface. My one gripe is that they are using Edge instead of Cingular’s 3G network.

However, I am much more skeptical of the sales projections put out by analysts. I read estimates ranging anywhere from 10 to 25 million units sold in the 2008. That does not seem credible as it’s like 5-10 times the number of Treos sold a year – especially as the iPhone is very expensive. At $499 for 4GB and $599 for 8GB with a two year Cingular contract, the iPhone comes in at, or near, the top of the smart-phone market.

Also, Apple did not have choice but to release an iPhone. I am usually not big on convergence devices, but the latest MP3 phones on the market are becoming good.

I am also skeptical of Apple’s staying power in the long run:

  • They don’t make any money on content sales (on the current per download business model music labels, movie studios and credit card fees account for almost the entire retail price of the content)
  • Profits on the hardware are going to fall as Asian manufacturers copy the hardware with lower costs and sell it for lower prices
  • The iPhone won’t have enough market share to save Apple from the eventual rise of cell phones as the main mechanism for listening to music, thus relegating the Ipod to niche status

Somehow, this feels like it’s been played out before! That said, I don’t expect their competitors to catch up rapidly. It will take years, but eventually the margins will compress, the profits will decline and the stock will collapse. Of course, they will eventually build some new cool must have gadget and rise again, for a while, and the cycle will continue.

Conclusion: I am not about to become an Apple shareholder, but I will definitely buy an iPhone as soon as it comes out!

Report from the video game wars: Wii vs. PS3 vs. Xbox360

My gaming credentials:

I will start by admitting that I am a gamer. I have been playing games since I got my first PC in the early 1980s. I rapidly discovered a weakness for strategy games, especially real time strategy games, and adventure games. The adventure genre has fallen into disrepute recently, but I used to love Sierra Games: King’s Quest, Space Quest, Hero’s Quest, Police Quest, Gabriel Knight, Knights of Camelot, Leisure Suit Larry, etc. The only really captivating adventure games of the past few years have been The Longest Journey (the original, Dreamfall is sub par) and Broken Sword: The Sleeping Dragon. As for strategy games, my favorites are Sword of Aragon, Panzer General, Warlords, Civilization, Dune 2, Warcraft, Command and Conquer, Age of Empires, Rise of Nations and Company of Heroes. I am currently looking forward to Supreme Commander and Command and Conquer 3.

I will readily admit that I am more of a PC gamer than a console gamer though I have owned numerous consoles from the original Atari to the PS2 and Xbox. While I use the PC to play strategy and adventure games, I use the console to play first and third person shooters, role playing games (except for Diablo which I played on PC), car racing games, sports games and fighting games.

The PlayStation 3:

The PlayStation 3 was the console I was most looking forward to. It had all the technical specs that a self-avowed gadget and technology enthusiast like me can only dream of: Cell processor, 1080p, Blu-ray, built in wireless networking, HDMI connector. I was even ready to overlook the $599 price in light of all the features and the fact that the last two PlayStations were considered expensive when they came out. Inevitably the price will fall as Moore’s law dictates.

Unfortunately I was disappointed:

  • The game graphic quality was no better than that of the Xbox360. In fact it was often slightly worse, even when compared with first generation Xbox360 games, let alone second generation Xbox games like Gears of War. Gamespot corroborates my findings with a detailed analysis and report which you can read at:;title;0
  • The controllers don’t have rumble feedback, the battery life is terrible and you can’t replace the batteries. I have not yet tried the tilt sensitivity so I will reserve my judgment on that though I suspect it’s no match for the Wii in that department.
  • The system cannot multitask properly and twice took 45 minutes to download and install “required” updates making the system useless in the meantime. On the Xbox 360 you can easily download something from the net while playing a game. Not to mention, that these updates make the PlayStation 3 feel like an unfinished product.
  • Again, contrarily to the Xbox360, the PS3 cannot connect to home networks meaning that the only way to transfer music, photos and videos from your PC is via a memory card, USB drive or ripping them on a CD.
  • The interface and browser could use a lot of help. The system can’t tell you which Blu-ray disc you have. Entering a name, password or web URL is a pain and the system does not offer an onscreen keyboard like the Xbox’s. The web browser is incredibly awkward – try to use MySpace or Youtube with it – good luck!
  • There are not enough good games available.
  • The PS3 is hard to find.

Conclusion: Don’t buy a PS3 right now, unless you want a Blu-ray player (and I would also recommend waiting on the HD DVD vs. Blu-ray war to settle before doing that). The game and PS3 availability is going to be addressed in the year to come. Prices will fall. Hopefully Sony will address the browser, network connectivity and UI issues with more of those “required updates” and maybe find a way to match Xbox Live.

The Xbox 360:

I have owned an Xbox 360 since the Spring of 2006. I have to admit I have been impressed. I am completely addicted to Oblivion IV and Gears of War (which I just finished in co-op mode with my good friend William, VP of Marketing at OLX). I also play Top Spin 2, Burnout Revenge, Project Gotham Racing 3, Dead or Alive 4 and Assault Heroes. I am also very much looking forward to Lost Planet and Halo 3.

What has impressed me the most has been Microsoft’s attention to detail:

  • Xbox Live is amazing! It works well, it’s easy to use. The multiplayer system is phenomenal, especially compared to the numerous problems I have been experiencing with PC games in recent years (Note to Relic on Company of Heroes: you must allow team ranked games where I play with my ally and not just random people – also stop counting all my victories as losses – yes even after patch 1.4!) . You can even download HD movies (though they only have 6 available right now and take about 5 hours to download)
  • If you turn the wireless controller on, it turns the Xbox 360 on!
  • Connecting the Xbox to a Media Center PC to exchange files is very easy.


  • The wireless adapter should be built in the Xbox 360 Pro and not require an extra purchase
  • Xbox Live should be free. Most online PC gaming is free except for MMORPGs. Xbox Live is a huge comparative advantage with the PS3. It should be worth it for Microsoft to lock in more users by providing Live access for free.
  • The power supply is incredibly big and the Xbox360 is way noisier than it should be!
  • The movie selection on Xbox Live is really poor, especially in HD – and what I really want is a Netflix-like all you can eat movie and TV show service for $19.99 a month with almost everything in HD and not have to pay per download. I suppose this is more the studios’ fault than Microsoft, nonetheless, it’s annoying.
  • Using component cables and an optical cable for surround sound is less clean than using an HDMI 1.3 cable.

Conclusion: I was originally concerned by the lack of an HDMI connector and the lack of support for 1080p. However, an HDMI connector is only really useful to play certain protected content from HD DVD or Blu-ray. It offers no advantages in video quality for displaying games in 720p, thus the high-definition component connection is good enough. More importantly, the game selection is good, the graphics and playability is great and Xbox Live works incredibly well. If you are a hard core gamer, this is the console to get right now. Make sure you get Oblivion IV and Gears of War with it too!

The Wii:

To be honest, I had very low expectations for the Wii. I stopped using Nintendo with the Nintendo 64. However, the interest that the Wii garnered with its wireless controller, which can be used as a handheld pointing device and can detect motion and rotation in three dimensions, peaked my curiosity.

I played Wii Sports and Zelda and loved the interface. Tennis was tons of fun and I can’t wait for them to release a full blown tennis game for the Wii. The user interface was extremely easy to use and the parents of my friends who own Wiis were not only interested in playing but figured out how to play in no time.

On the downside, the low quality of the graphics really annoyed me. Most of the games available on the market did not interest me (and frankly appeared downright childish). There is no online gaming available yet.

Conclusion: For younger players, non gamers and casual gamers the Wii is a good choice. It’s much less expensive than the competing systems and Wii Sports and Zelda are great launch titles.

Personal Conclusion:

I have decided to separate my personal preferences from my market analysis as I have realized my personal choices don’t reflect those of the mass market when it comes to gaming. If I represented the average consumer, Nintendo would have died years ago and Sony would have had a runaway success with its PSP. I love the depth, richness and graphic quality of the games on the PSP and its ability to play movies on its bright great looking screen! (Non-sequitur: Sony you need a lesson in interface design. Transferring movies to the PSP is way too much of a pain! If you can take lessons from Microsoft on interface design, you know something is seriously wrong!). Instead, the Gameboy Advance and DS have sold over 100 million units while Sony sold 25 million PSP.

As you can deduct from the above report, I own and highly recommend the Xbox 360. The PS3 has been incredibly disappointing and I will wait a year before considering buying one to complement my Xbox 360. As of now unless Sony gets exclusives on “must play” games, I don’t think I will ever get one. As for the Wii, I truly hesitated. Last week-end I headed to Best Buy to buy one. They did not have any, but a nearby store had a few in stock. Before buying it, I went to demo it one last time. They had a video game showcase with a Wii next to an Xbox 360 both playing on 42” Plasma TVs. The graphic difference was so stark, I could not get myself to buy the Wii. The graphics looked so amateurish and old! Instead, I left with Assault Heroes for the Xbox 360 and Killzone and Field Commander for the PSP.

Market Conclusion:

I can’t believe what I am about to write. This has always been Sony’s market to lose! They have a huge installed base of fans. An enormous library of backwards compatible games. Yet, in the last year they seem to have done everything in their power to lose! They released the PS3 much later than expected. The price is exorbitant. The games and graphics are not better than on the Xbox, partly because the development tools for it are incredibly complex to use (every game developer I know has been complaining!). The multimedia and online functions are sub-par. If the three consoles had no legacy of built in fans and backwards compatible games, I would say the Xbox and Wii would do well and the PlayStation 3 would be a disaster – maybe not as bad as the 3DO or NeoGeo, but probably relatively poorly. However, it’s still early in the game and with the legions of fans and catalog of great games and a number of PS3 only exclusive great games, the PS3 will end up doing very well once the teething problems are out. However, this market is no longer Sony’s sole reserve and their 70% market share will go the way of history. In fact, I suspect the Xbox 360 will edge out the PS3 in overall sales over the next few years.

As for the future of the high end console wars, I believe it’s actually Microsoft’s game to lose right now. The original Xbox was released 1 year later than the PS2, yet the Xbox360 was released 1 year earlier than the PS3. By using more off the shelf components, Microsoft benefits from the innovations in the PC industry and the R&D of third party firms. It also keeps their costs lower. If they keep it up, they should be in a position to release the next Xbox much before the PS4 hits the market and take the market with them.

In the interim, if I was running Xbox I would do the following:

  • Make Xbox Live free
  • As soon as financially viable start cutting the price of the Xbox Core to $249, then $199, and hopefully $149 and $99 after that
  • Release an Xbox Pro Wireless with built in Wifi and a headset for Xbox Live bundled for the $399 price of the current Xbox Pro
  • For the Xbox 3 in 4-5 years:
    1. 1. Match the Wii’s motion sensing controller, but also keep a traditional controller bundled with the device
      2. By then the chipset for an HD DVD / Blu-ray drive should cost less than $100, integrate it into the Xbox whichever the winner – or support both
      3. Have 802.11n or its successors built in
      4. Support 1080p and have an HDMI or successor interface
      5. Make sure the console is quiet and does not come with a monster brick power supply – ideally you should be able to plug the power cord directly into the console
      6. Be backwards compatible with Xbox360 games
      7. Charge no more than $399

As for Nintendo, I have written them off too many times before to do so again. My original instinct was that the motion sensing controller would be a fad, but I am sure they are going to come up with great games and applications designed specifically for it, in a similar way that they surprised me with the touchpad on the DS. As a result I predict they will do very well, especially with younger gamers, casual gamers and first time gamers (meaning formerly non gamers).

In other words, I suspect that when it’s all said and done and we’re tallying the number of consoles sold at the end of 2010, all 3 makers will have installed bases of more than 50 million, maybe even 100 million, devices splitting the market 3 ways with maybe a 10-15% market share difference between them. My instinct would be that Xbox360 and the Wii would come out on top with the PS3 lagging behind.

The Geo-Political Landscape: The Perspective of an Optimist

Turn the pages of any paper covering foreign policy and it is easy to become depressed about the state of the world: massacres in Darfur, quagmire in Iraq, setbacks in Afghanistan, nuclear ambitions in Iran, a nuclear armed North Korea, recurring terrorist threats around the world, continued Palestinian/Israeli conflict, war in Somalia. The list goes on.

I am not going to cover any of these conflicts explaining why they are going to get better (in many cases they won’t) or why we are fighting an effective war against terrorists (we’re not). At the same time, I don’t want to lessen the importance of the threat from militant Islam – the war against terrorism must and will be won – but I want to show how relative it is.

From the perspective of the 1950s and 1960s, the world we live in today would appear improbably peaceful. Take yourself back to a time where two thirds of the world was under communist control. Dictatorships outnumbered democracies. The cold war was raging. The threat of global thermonuclear war was very real and possible. Stalin and Mao ruled over the Soviet Union and China overseeing the killing of tens of millions of people. Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge were massacring 2 million people in Cambodia. The U.S. fought bloody wars in Korea and Vietnam. Misguided economic policies were keeping billions in poverty.

Today, Eastern Europe and Latin America have become mostly democratic. China has become one of the most capitalist countries of the world taking hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. Globalization is spreading wealth around the world and global GDP has grown as fast in the past 5 years as it ever has in the past 50 years! The risk of thermonuclear destruction is a distant memory.

We are still at war against enemies of change and progress, but for the most part, the debate is verbal. The biggest military threat is no longer coming from state actors, but from supra-national organizations with somewhat amorphous aims. As a result, the current military operations are mostly counter-insurgency operations (though we are not necessarily operating as such). It should also be mentioned that the stakes are lower: the very survival of “western civilization” is not at stake!

For all that, I am an optimist. We live in a much better world that we did 50 years ago. The forces of wealth, progress, science and reason are inexorably advancing around the world. There are and will be setbacks, but once people have had a taste of the empowerment brought by capitalism, freedom and science, there is no turning back. They will fight to get access to the forbidden fruit of hope, ambition and dreams and will thus make the world a better place.

To a better tomorrow!

The benefits of intellectual curiosity

While true polymaths like Leonardo da Vinci are rare, there is an increasing body of evidence to suggest that having diverse interests makes you better in everything you do.

To some extent, this is counter-intuitive – you might expect to perform best by putting 100% of our efforts into a single pursuit. However, recent evidence suggests that is not the case. Your behavior shapes your brain and the benefits of practicing one skill are not limited to that skill alone, they can be transferred, and the more things you know something about the more there is to transfer. As Alvaro Pascual-Leone, professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School says: “If you practice multiple things you actually get better at any one of those things.”

So go ahead and pursue your interests, passion and curiosity no matter how trivial it may seem, you are actually doing your brain, yourself and your employer a favor!

For a more detailed analysis on the benefits of cross-training your brain read Fortune’s article at: