The Starfish and the Spider: A Book Review

Tradition organizations are organized in a hierarchal fashion. There is usually a leader, with several subordinates, themselves with subordinates. This type of structure is a very top down approach to organizing leadership. The Starfish and the Spider, by Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom, takes a look at another type of organizational approach: one that relies on the power of peer relationships. Not only is the book one of the most insightful books to come out about organizations in recent years, but it also serves as a valuable survey to some very important battles between businesses with the two organizational styles.

The title, The Starfish and the Spider, comes from nature and the makeup of those two organisms, and how they match the two organizational styles discussed within the book. The spider is the standard, top down hierarchal organization. Control & decision-making are contained in one part of the spiders’ body: its head. It’s the head that is responsible for all decisions. For example, if the spider wants to move somewhere, its head notifies its legs of where they’re going and they’re off. If the spider’s head becomes injured or severed from its body, the spider will die. This is an example of a traditional, top down organization with a CEO or president. Starfish, on the other hand, is an example of system where decision-making is distributed throughout the entire organization. Control and decision-making are distributed across the entire body. If the starfish wants to move somewhere, each individual leg makes the decision to move. If the leg of a starfish were to become severed, that starfish would simply grow a new leg. The severed leg will, in turn, grow into an entirely new starfish. This describes the two types of organizations profiled in the book. Spider organizations are very centralized and rely on visible and controlling leaders. Starfish organizations are decentralized and do not rely on one specific leader.

The authors like to use fancy words like “decentralized” and “centralized” to describe these two organizational structures. However, they do not retreat into esoteric business theory or delve into technical analysis to describe examples of these structures. Instead, they take an approach recently made popular another book on a seemingly dry topic: economics. Freakonomics, by Steven D. Levitt, explains his economic research by juxtaposing two seemingly unrelated topics together to explain his theories and data. Relating the economic incentives of drug dealers to beauty pageant contestants and relating the drop in crime experienced during the 80’s and 90’s to the Row vs. Wade abortion ruling of 1973 are just two examples of this juxtaposition. Brafman and Beckstrom use a similar tactic when comparing the music industry and their efforts to stomp out peer to peer music swapping and the Spanish army’s attempt to conquer the Apache Indian tribe almost 350 years ago. In both instances the spiders, played by the Spanish and the music industry, found out that traditional ways to control top down organizations were not working with the starfish, played by the peer-to-peer culture and the Apaches. In fact the starfish organizations were flourishing.

While the concept of a centralized vs. decentralized business sounds technical and certainly only valuable to a small subset of readers, the authors do not confine themselves to strictly business and technical related examples. Citing such other immensely popular and flourishing starfish organizations such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), The Burning Man Festival and The Animal Liberation Front (ALF), the authors provide examples of other non-business, decentralized organizations. In fact, in some examples, there isn’t even a controlling body to speak of. Most of these organizations are brought together by nothing more than an ideology.

All of this talk about existing organizations, peer-to-peer music sharing and Apache Indian tribes is all well and good, but what if you want to know if there are any common characteristics that these starfish organizations share? Perhaps you are involved in an organization and you would like to make it more starfish like. In this case, the authors do go over not only the characteristics of starfish organizations, but also several rules for migrating your organization to become more starfish like. The Long Tail by Chris Anderson takes a similar approach. In Mr. Anderson’s case, his topic is about the rise of the niche within our culture, not only with consumers and producers of media, but also more targeted advertising. In both books, the authors provide characteristics of organizations that are taking advantage of the ideas put forth, as well as rules to follow if you want to take advantages of their ideas. Both books also draw parallels between future success and harnessing the power of a large number of people.

The Starfish and The Spider is not only a historical look at traditional and nontraditional starfish organizations, but also a manifesto for the future of our society. Already, the core of entire industries is being shaken. The music industry, with the rise of peer-to-peer music sharing and of independent publishing, is finding itself on the defensive, with no clear path to maintain it’s historical control. The phone company, with the rise of such services as Vonage and Skype, is also reeling. Unable to compete against such agile and nimble organizations, large companies such as AT&T and General Motors are finding themselves in real danger. The rise in communication power of the Internet coupled with the overall increase of globalization has led to a rise in starfish organizations worldwide. The Starfish and the Spider lifts the lid on that revolution and gives organizations the tools and the insight to adapt and become more starfish like. The starfish and the spiders are battling, and the starfish are winning convincingly.

Great book and highly recommended.

Parallels Performance Tip #4: Host your vm hard drives on a eSATA HD

This is the fourth of several tips I want to write up with regards to squeezing every last bit of performance out of Parallels Desktop for the Mac. All information below is based on the current release of Parallels Desktop for Mac, Build 3188

In my first tip, “Don’t use an external USB HD to hold your VM”, I spoke about not holding your vm on a external hard drive. So why now would I be saying to hold them on an external hard drive? Simple. In my first tip, I spoke of how much slower USB 2.0 is vs. the MB or MBP’s internal SATA hard drive. Quote:

The current MacBook SATA bus thus runs at a maximum of ~1.5 Gb/s ( ~150MB/s ). Compared to maximum USB 2.0 speeds of ~480 Mbit/s (~60 MB/s), your internal hard drive will be much faster.

( BTW, Firewire is out also because, while FireWire 800 is faster than USB 2.0 ( ~100MB/s vs. ~60MB/s ), it’s still slower than SATA ). So then, what’s the answer?


The current specification eSATA runs at a theoretical speed of ~3.0Gb/s ( ~300MB/s ). That’s 2x the speed of the already fast SATA, and 5x the speed of USB 2.0. A nice table summarizing these facts can be found here.

I currently have three hard drives running under my main Parallels virtual machine: OS, Data, and swap. I used HD Tach from Simpli Software to run some simple benchmarking between my internal SATA drive and my eSATA drive. Below is a screenshot of the long benchmark run on my main OS hard drive:


The blue line represents my eSATA hard drive and the red represents my internal SATA hard drive. Pretty substantial difference. Now have a look at my data drive, which is about a third of the size of my OS hard drive:

Picture 1-14

Again, the results show the faster eSATA drive outperforming the slower, internal SATA hard drive by a factor of about 3 to 1 in almost every category except for CPU utilization.

As I talked about in my first tip, the biggest bottleneck for virtual machines has long been the hard drive. Reading and writing are much slower operations when run virtually and not natively. Any increase in read and write speed when dealing with virtual machines will clearly a performance boost. As the above data shows, eSATA is the winner

when it comes to hosting your vm hard drive.

As a tangent, I know that some people think that having the vm hard drives on an external drive is better no matter the connection speed because then you’re not battling the OS & internal bus for hard drive access. However, despite that being the case, the trade off in speed between USB / Firewire and SATA more than makes up for any contention you may encounter. However, in the case of eSATA, you get the best of both worlds: no contention and faster access speeds.

So, if eSATA is the winner, where’s the eSATA connection on your laptop? Well, there’s the rub. eSATA is rather new and the only way to get a connection on your laptop is with an express card. Currently, there’s only two options for adding eSATA connections to your mac laptop:

1. Sonnet Tempo SATA Express 34

2. SIIG eSATA II 2-Port ExpressCard-M

Not only are there not that many options, but the above cards are fairly expensive. I bought a SIIG card directly from SIIG and it costs $79.99 plus shipping. The Sonnet Tempo card is even more expensive. All that cash for something with 2 eSATA ports that you can only use on external hard drives is a little pricey and you haven’t bought an enclosure yet. If you don’t have a SATA hard drive lying around, that will just add to the costs. The good news is that an eSATA enclosure is actually cheaper in most cases than a USB / Firewire enclosure. ( Also, with most eSATA enclosures you also get a mounting bracket for your desktop computer that adds eSATA capabilities to your desktop. ) I picked up one at Microcenter for a mere $25.

It’s up to you to decide if those giant blue bars shown above are worth the extra cash 🙂 Parallels will thank you for it.

Strength Finder Results

Fueled by my friend Tom Looy taking Clifton’s Strengths Finder test, I decided to go ahead and take it for myself to see what my strengths were. The results:

1. Input: People strong in the Input theme have a craving to know more. Often they like to collect and archive all kinds of information.

2. Command: People strong in the Command theme have presence. They can take control of a situation and make decisions.

3. Learner: People strong in the Learner theme have a great desire to learn and want to continuously improve. In particular, the process of learning, rather than the outcome, excites them.

4. Intellection: People strong in the Intellection theme are characterized by their intellectual activity. They are introspective and appreciate intellectual discussions.

5. Includer: People strong in the Includer theme are accepting of others. They show awareness of those who feel left out, and make an effort to include them.

Kinda a mixed bag of strengths. The next steps are to look up my top 5 strengths in “Now, Discover Your Strengths” and see how I leverage them.

Should be interesting. Anyone else taken this test? What have you done with the results?

Why can't someone open a good computer store?

With the recent announcement that CompUSA is closing its Chicago-land stores combined with the announcement that Best Buy is closing its “Escape” stores, I started wondered something. Why can’t anyone seem to open store / chain that sells primarily computers and accessories?

Chicago is now left with 2 Microcenter locations as the only “computer superstore” in the area, with Best Buy serving a secondary role as all around gadget store.

The Fry’s that recently opened in Downers Grove is an underwhelming experience at best. I have spoken with many people who think it’s not even worth their time to go there. Fry’s doesn’t have better prices than other retailers ( Best Buy & Microcenter ) and their staff is…..useless would be putting it nicely.

This all can’t just be blamed on the internet slicing into their profits. I remember years ago when Radio Shack was a huge computer reseller. There was also the now defunct chain Elek-Tek. Why can’t these chains stay open and/or focused on computers?

What’s bizarre is that there is one retailer whose stores are not only open, but profitable: Apple. I know I tend to shill for Apple, but there stores are extremely profitable & flourishing. It seems that Apple is, yet again, succeeding where other companies have failed miserably.

One of the reasons why I think people like Apple’s stores is the staff. They’re not the techies / geeks found in most other computer stores that tend to intimidate consumers. They’re real people and, more importantly, they know Apple’s products and are not afraid to talk to you about them. I am sure that’s very comforting to people who aren’t very knowledge about computers in general.

I just hope all this changes. As much as I love Apple, I would like so see a more general computer done right.