Night Watch - Terry Pratchett

Another Vimes book, and happily much more The Fifth Elephant than Jingo. Another story of Vimes travelling abroad, but this time it's the case that the past is a different country.

Vimes has levelled up impressively over the course of these books, to the point where he's a politician with memories of action. Despite Pratchett's inventiveness, "senior administrator" is a hard role to make an interesting story of. So, instead, this is a most interesting flashback story. But rather make a story about an early part of his career, the plot sends the Duke 30 years back in time, where he ends up as a Sergeant during one of Ankh-Morpork's revolutions. Except it is also a story about his early career, since a young Sam Vimes has just joined the force, and setting him on the right path in a corrupt watch is part of the older Vimes's missions.

At this point Vimes is just some kind of super-hero. From a lesser author this would be... tedious. It fits with the trope of the fantasy series where the protagonist levels up over multiple books and the books become increasingly awkward. In Pratchett's hands, it's still a good story. Vimes becomes a way for Terry to put forward a thesis on good leadership, at least as it comes in policing. Vimes's leadership is backed by working his way up from the bottom, from a good foundation. He has clearly developed hugely since Men at Arms, and his skills allow him to bring the watch house into shape in almost no time - with lots of senior people muttering (suspiciously) that he's clearly beyond Sergeant material.

One thing I instinctively didn't like is the filling in of Vetinari's backstory. We knew he was in the assassin's guild, but not much more about his past and how he ended up in power. It was shocking enough when I learnt his forename, and here a whole pile of history is laid out!

I see this pattern in a bunch of Discworld bits. History coalesces, becomes solid and part of the lore. Early on, they published the Discworld Mapp and Map of Ankh-Morpork, building retrospective continuity on the geography, and filling in the gaps. It feels like there's an ongoing project to do that with the characters. The risk is that building up this level of detail removes some of the feeling of openness to the world (if you don't know things, the unknown is much less well defined!), and can tie down future stories. However, this is balanced by the fact that the Discworld, and particularly Ankh-Morpork, are dynamic. Things change, so there's always something new.

In short, I think he got away with filling in more Vetinari backstory. It was interesting, even if I'd enjoyed the mystery.

Pitching it against The Fifth Elephant - I think that book has the edge, thanks to the unusual setting and less well-worn politics. Ankh-Morpork of 30 years ago is still Ankh-Morpork. But it's close, and great fun. Highly recommended.

Posted 2021-06-23.


Why Information Grows - César Hidalgo

I was talking about... I think how to scale teams and complicated systems, to an ex-colleague of mine, and they suggested I read Why Information Grows. So I did. It's... an interesting book.

In the end, the book is about how we build the complicated systems of our economy, through the lens of accumulating and managing information, based on the groundwork of information theory. It sits in the pop-sci/my pet economic theory cross-over space, if you can imagine such a thing. Before going any further, I find it a little pretentious, and somewhat less deep than it thinks it is. With that said, let's dive in a little further:

The start of the book is pop-sci - information theory, entropy and all that stuff. You can tell that they deliberately avoided putting any equations in, presumably to avoid denting the sales figures, since there are so many simple, quantitatively well-defined concepts that aren't elucidated. Entropy is left as magic, not p log p.

There is a gem in this section, though: The work of Prigogine, who explains why it is, if entropy is increasing, that we get bubbles or order, like our world. Out-of-equilibrium systems transiently generate order on the road to entropy. Given "entropy always increases" clashes with our everyday experience, I'm surprised that I had no idea about this work, and that it's not more well known.

After doing the pop-sci bit, he jumps to explaining the economy in terms of knowledge and know-how, the core of the economy as handling information. Physical objects are described as crystallized imagination, as if this is not a pretentious way to say we design things.

A knowledge-based view of the economy is very powerful. It allows you to distinguish between hard-to-produce goods like microelectronics and basic ore extraction in a way that traditional economics glosses over. There's also a certain amount of standing-on-the-shoulders-of-giants knowledge-building-on-knowledge stuff, rather undermined by their Hot Take on resource extraction. The traditional view is that taking resources to build things from poor countries is exploitation, César's view is that those minerals weren't valuable until scientists discovered their usefulness, and hence those countries are actually exploiting the scientists!

Apart from the very dodgy analysis of what exploitation is, I felt this section missed a bunch of tricks. No analysis was done of the resource curse in this framework. Knowledge/know-how is a form of capital, but since he's avoiding the "capital" framing, it's not compared with other forms of capital, so the relative importance of know-how embedded in manufacturing equipment as opposed to experts is never analysed.

Nor is the idea, which I think is very important, of the ease of manufacturing - ahem, crystalizing imagination - in all this. Making fine-featured microchips requires insanely complicated machines, of which there are only a few in the world, and of which the manufacture is itself a great engineering challenge. On the other hand, software, once written, can be copied without effort. There's a reason "software is eating the world". However, there's no discussion of all that.

So, while the author disparages economics for blurring economics for blurring all capital together, important structures in knowledge are blurred over. Oh well.

There's a nice chapter on "Amplifiers", discussing how, through specialisation, we can become experts, and the power that gives us - for example, a guitarist need not know how to make a guitar. I was disappointed that this chapter didn't talk about abstraction. In information systems like software and maths, abstraction is the tool to allow you to concentrate on a single area without having to think about the whole stack simultaneously. It's how we make complex things tractable. The amplifiers concept is abstraction in the world of goods, and not having the information concept of "abstraction" identified in the economic domain was disappointing.

The next step is to the idea that real-world know-how and knowledge is stored in people, and given a human's finite capacity, complicated systems need to store that across many people linked together. This fairly obvious idea is spun by calling the amount one person can know a "personbyte". It is then pointed out that interaction costs are substantial, which is of no surprise whatsoever to anyone who's worked in a large team. Much of the book focuses on the geographic ramifications of knowledge residing in physically co-located networks of people.

The step beyond that is to make the dubious claim that there's a similar limit on the size of a corporation, tied to Coase's theorem. This, I don't believe. There's no reason external interaction costs must be lower than internal interaction costs, at some scale. Personally, I believe the best reason for separate companies is economies of scale across multiple customers. A company that supplies products to multiple companies is going to achieve economies of scale not achievable to a company that only supplies a single customer, while a company supplying a single customer might as well just vertically integrate. Put another way, companies allow the customer graph to be a DAG.

The key point is that the best way to scale links is through abstraction. If I work with other people, the less I need to know about the inner workings of their world, the more people I can work with and the more I can concentrate on my own domain. Separating companies forces an abstraction, but good management can achieve that within a company, too. I can see within my workplace the combination of deliberate abstractions and deliberate network-building (with near and far links) as a way to create an extremely large but scalable company.

Many of these abstractions are effectively interfaces. The book identifies standards as a way of reducing the cost of links; these are interfaces. As a physicist rather than a computer scientist, he nevers says "interface".

The tail end of the chapter whines a bit about the inefficiency of US government contracting and the healthcare system, spending so much of the knowledge capacity in what is effectively link management (aka bureaucracy). For someone who is supposed to be looking at the big picture, this is a complete lack of Systems Thinking ("the purpose of a system is what it does"). As someone so focused on the production of crystallized imagination, he assumes the purpose of all organisations is to do that. It's convenient that many organisations align so well with doing that, and by cherry-picking the organisations, it's easy to pretend that's what they're all for. The "inefficient" organisations are only so if you mistake what they're trying to achieve.

In short, I found the whole "firmbyte" concept of firm size limitation and associated discussion pretty deeply disappointing.

The next section talks about the relationship between social networks and network-building and the role of trust in society. The idea of Silicon Valley winning out over the Boston tech centre due to more openness is a nice and concrete (if not terribly well-supported) example of how these personal network effects can affect the viability of a corporate ecosystem. Even more compelling are the stats on job-finding through social networks - networking is vital. It also demonstrates the challenges in building a diverse workforce, given the lack of diversity in many social networks.

For me, one of the big questions the book has failed to answer is "How vital is the human-held knowledge/know-how, relative to the physical capital?". I guess this is roughly akin to the traditional question of returns on capital vs. returns on labour, except the labour here is the expertise of knowledge workers, not the stereotyped manual labour. The book does give a great example of a network transport success, in the form of von Braun's team being transferred to the US post-WW2, but on the other hand they had access to almost unlimited resources. Physical resources had quite the hand in getting man to the moon!

By focusing so hard on knowledge and know-how, its place is lost in the wider picture, which is a shame, since I think the arguments for human knowledge/know-how being the most limiting factor in building advanced economic capacity are quite strong. Witness various governments' failed plans to build tech hubs by not understanding the human element and need for specific expertise - throwing money and failing. There are also myriad interesting examples to look at. Where do physical-equipment-light sectors like banking end up, compared to those that perform physical engineering (looking at you, Germany)? How did Shenzhen bootstrap itself to its current world-leading position? What do we see happening in internet-mediated communities, like open-source software? There's so much here, where empirical data would really help flesh out the ideas.

The latter part of the book does, finally, tie into traditional economics and theory of capital. This bit is actually quite good - it makes the case for not analysing the economy in aggregate, but breaking it out by specialisation, and analysing rare industries that encompass a high level of specialisation separately, which represent high-knowledge areas with increased economic value. By taking this more subtle approach to the economics of countries, more accurate growth modeling can be achieved. This whole chapter feels like Hidalgo's research papers have been simplified into book form, and compared to much of the rest of the book, this rigour works.

The end of the book compares companies and creatures, economies and ecosystems. The author notes that plants and animals are good at encapsulating all their knowledge/know-how for reproduction - for example, a tree is able to grow from a seed, in a way that companies cannot. On the other hand, a whole ecosystem is a set of flore and fauna in equilibrium, and represents a set-up that is hard to transfer, just as an economy is hard to build.

This analysis once again lacks systems thinking. The purpose of a rabbit is to make more rabbits. The purpose of a tennis ball factory is to make tennis balls. To make a tennis ball factory, you buy machines from other factories that in turn were assembled from components of other factories. The economy is a graph of resources that create other resources, while nature (modulo symbiotic relations like pollination etc.) is about things that directly produce copies of themselves. It is therefore zero surprise that our economy has no equivalent of the seed.

Looking at the length of this review, there's a fair old amount in this short book (180 pages before you hit the volumous and most grating acknowledgements section). Yet it feels incredibly shallow. The pop-sci section at the start both wastes an opportunity by avoiding grounding the concepts in maths, and is just plain unnecessary for the economics part of the book. The economics part spends a lot of time belabouring the obvious in pretentious terms, misses the opportunity for deeper thinking, and rarely ties the discussion to quantitative data, or even significant/compelling case studies. In the places where it does do so, mostly off the back of Hidalgo's published research, it's good. The downside is that this highlights the flaws in the rest of the book.

Going into the book, I was hoping for some insight into how to scale knowledge at the limits of human-managable complex systems where you're hitting the personbytes limits (*cough*, my team's job, *cough*), and I was disappointed that it didn't deliver there, but it also didn't deliver in so many other ways. Interesting, but a wasted opportunity.

Posted 2021-06-19.


The ABC Murders - Agatha Christie

I've never been into Agatha Christie. Growing up, the nearest I got was when my great aunt gave me Ngaio Marsh's "Colour Scheme", which I read and felt was a bit meh. Since then I've never been a great reader of crime fiction, although for some reason I did get through a giant Sherlock Holmes complete omnibus. I think in some senses that was less about the actual crime fiction, and more about what modern-day action stories looked like 120 years ago.

Anyone who's read a few of my book reviews will know that they're really more about me than the books. So, I'm just going to get side-tracked onto that great aunt of mine. She was lovely and really something of a character. Except, as someone under ten looking at a septegenarian, I never really saw that at the time. It was fascinating to learn more about her later. There you go. It's left me with a little sense of loss of not really getting to know her at the time, but also gratitude for knowing her enough that I can look back on the memories I do have, and fit them into a bigger picture.

Anyway, The ABC Murders. My previous exposure to Agatha Christie was a couple of screen versions of Murder on the Orient Express and glimpses of Suchet's Poirot. My son David had a speech exercise involving reading a passage of The ABC Murders, we got the book, he read it, I was casting around for something light to read, and here we are!

It sounds like a late Poirot - plenty of characters talking about how they're getting on. In the great tradition of these things, the mystery is documented by Poirot's sidekick, Hastings. Poirot acts like you'd expect Poirot to act, even if your knowledge of the character is basically cultural background radiation. The story itself is quite fun. Early on it telegraphs an obvious solution, and keeps hammering away at it, so you know a twist is coming. In the end, that twist is not surprising - while I didn't guess the exact murderer, I guessed the gist of it.

It's fun, enough. Does it encourage me to start reading the rest? Not really.

Posted 2021-06-17.


The Fifth Elephant - Terry Pratchett

I loved reading this book. It was the book Jingo should have been - international politics in a Discworld setting, with Vimes.

Unlike Jingo, almost all the action takes place abroad from Ankh-Morpork - this time in Uberwald, a land of werewolves, vampires, dwarves and some humans. There's political intrigue and a bit of detective work, and it all hangs together pretty well. I won't spoil the plot, but I enjoyed it immensely.

It's interesting to see Vimes as an element of Ankh-Morporkian cultural imperialism. People in Uberwald resent the drain of their folk to Ankh-Morpork, and how they break tradition there, and then Vimes turns up to the dwarves with a troll (who they're at war with) and a visibly female dwarf (going against millennia of tradition), and his attitude is simply "this is what we do in Ankh-Morpork, deal with it". Then he rails against the laws of Uberwald, whilst being there. Lucky he's a diplomat, I guess.

As with all Discworld novels, it's an askew take on the round world. The political goal is to ensure Ankh-Morpork gets a good deal on products from the dwarves' fat mines, which sounds ridiculous until you think of the wars we've had over oil.

I particularly enjoyed the introduction of the "clacks" in this book. By the start of this novel, telegraphy has sprung up. It's now just a thing they have, without too much fanfare, which is a pretty neat way of introducing a Big New Thing to the Discworld. It's also part of how Terry is changing the world. A generic fantasy world seems stuck in stasis. Indeed, many of the early Discworld books can be read in any order, there's little sense of the world progressing. Indeed, some of the books are like the Discworld's immune system rejecting alien concepts that push the world towards round world equivalence - e.g. Moving Pictures, Soul Music.

That changes with the Watch sequence. The Watch clearly evolves over a few books into a modern police force, and it feels like a catalyst to allow Terry to evolve the whole world, bringing in things like the clacks. And somehow this feels right. It is a world on the cusp of change. Just like our own world during the industrial revolution, there was a sudden change from a world that looked a bit like a fantasy novel without magic to our modern world. Bringing this to the Discworld is fascinating.

Posted 2021-06-07.


The Thursday Murder Club - Richard Osman

This book has been surprisingly popular. I'm sure having a famous author doesn't hurt its chances in that regard, but it's interesting to see what gets the visibility. I mean, it's a pretty fun book, but not exactly great literature. How did I come to read it? My son got it, my wife read it, and I was looking for something light to read while going through medical treatment. For that it worked very nicely.

It's very readable, and the plot is enjoyable. The titular club is a group of septe/octogenarians who are spending their time digging through old murder cases and trying to solve them... when some actual murders turn up in their retirement community. The characters are larger than life, with a particularly overblown narcissistic and vacant property developer. The writing style of the book is very chatty; while most of it is in the third person, the text tends to align with the current character. Reading it is a bit like being set about by a garrulous bunch of retirees.

It's not pure saccharine. The retirees are active not because they're in a Miss Marple world of immortal little old ladies, but because they're aware how close the nursing home is (metaphorically and physically), and are making the most of what they have - genteely raging against the dying of the light.

One advantage of setting a whodunnit in a retirement community is the amount of room you get for long-buried secrets and history. The book is very willing to chuck in twists and red herrings, and it pulls in a few historical murders too. The result is fun. Not particularly believable, not incredibly subtle, but fun.

Posted 2021-05-21.


Jingo - Terry Pratchett

When I last read Jingo, something like 20 years ago, I was unimpressed by it. As I started to re-read it, I didn't understand why, but by the end I did. It's muddled.

An island appears in the Circle Sea, claimed by both Ankh-Morpork and Klatch, threatining war. As assassination attempt is made on Klatch royalty in Ankh-Morpork, and Vimes needs to investigate this JFK-style crime. Political crime!

Except it then veers off over to Klatch, things get messy with thoughts on the police vs. soldiers, the nature of politics and war and crime and things, and then at the end the Patrician pops up as a deus ex machina to sort everything out. Fun threads get dropped, lots of the action doesn't actually seem to drive the story, and the resolutions were uninspiring.

It's still not a bad read - Pratchett knows how to keep a story spinning along - it just ended up feeling unsatisfactory. I can't remember if this was the last Discworld novel I read at the time, or just nearly the last one, but it didn't really inspire me to keep reading at the time. Returning to the series, I'll forgive this dud and keep going.

Posted 2021-05-13.


Feet of Clay - Terry Pratchett

Carrying on from Men at Arms, I feel this is a slightly more successful book. Once again, the Watch continues to expand, and many similar themes come up. The main plot is about The Golems, but there's the subplot of Vetinari's poisoning and positioning to install a monarch. The themes are around the golems, a bit more about monarchy, and another aspect of diversity.

The monarchy angle still feels overplayed to me. I can't decide if Vimes's role as anti-monarchist is inherited is amusing or overdone. The associated poisoning of Vetinari is enjoyably full of red herrings. The diversity sub-plot moves from including other races (trolls and dwarfs) to a dwarf that wants to be visibly female. There's so much of the Discworld that's a commentary on spherical-world happenings that I guess this is LGBTQ-equivalent, but I dunno.

The golem plot is perhaps the most interesting one to map to Earth politics. It's interesting to take a character from Jewish folklore - what are the Discworld equivalent of Jews? Stereotyping them onto a specific fantasy race seems like a really, really bad idea, and Pratchett doesn't do that. Golems are not created by a specific race. Phew. But what do these enslaved machines without free will actually represent? Maybe AI or something like that? By the time the story's done, they've been mapped onto the socialist working class, which I wasn't really expecting. Somewhat more oblique than I was expecting.

I last read Feet of Clay many, many years ago, and it didn't make much impression on me at the time. I'm surprised that, on re-reading it, I'd enjoyed it more than Men at Arms. To be followed by Jingo.

Posted 2021-05-07.


Men At Arms - Terry Pratchett

As promised, I'm following up Guards! Guards! with Men At Arms. This book revisits the Watch and marks the transition from single book to a series about the guards. There's an appropriate amount of continuity (and joke re-hashing) as new characters are added. It's very enjoyable, but not quite as successful as I remember.

I think the fundamental issue is that it tries to cram too much in. It deals with racism, monarchism and guns all in the same book. I think the "gonne" is the weakest part. It follows in the path of other "Earth thing turns up in the Discworld and wreaks havoc" books, like Moving Pictures and Soul Music, but just doesn't really pull it off. Meh.

The racism angle is tricky, and perhaps nowadays there'd be hand-wringing about it being written by a white, male author, and how it's Problematic. As it is, handling racism and long-running racial feuds works pretty well in a universe with fantasy stereotypes and not so much different races as species. Combined with the fact that most of the citizens of Ankh-Morpork are low-grade awful, and a few are trying to improve themselves, and you get something that at least addresses "racism is bad" without anything being painfully out-of-place for the Discworld. That's this white male's simplistic view, anyway.

If anything, the awkward bit is Angua and Carrot's relationship, where she seems to be pretty much his pet. Mind you, looking at Vimes and Sybil, I guess Discworld relationships don't need to make that much sense.

Anyway, the monarchy theme from Guards! Guards! is back again, and... it's just laid on a little thick. An awful lot is written about Carrot's likeability, perhaps because it wouldn't be clear otherwise, given how stolidly boring he is (not that he's written boringly, he's deliberately written to be boring).

So, all this makes it sound like I'm really down on this book. I'm not. It's still very entertaining, and the evolution of the Night Watch into the start of an actual police force is fun to watch. Perhaps the thing is that despite the overall themes being handled in a lacklustre manner, the page-to-page writing is still excellent. There are some great set pieces - in particular, I love the pork futures warehouse. And I'd forgotten that actual foreground characters you care about get killed (spoiler alert!). Let your eyes glaze over a little on the big picture and enjoy the ride.

Posted 2021-04-28.


Guards! Guards! - Terry Pratchett

This is the first time I'm re-reviewing a book, having last read this one in 2009. It looks like I'll be reading a fair amount of Pratchett, following on from Pyramids.

This is Caroline's favourite Pratchett, and I can see why. It's part of a strong run, and it introduces the Night Watch, setting up for a sequence of rather good books. It's not cookie-cutter. As a re-read it's comforting, but it's also funny and interesting and just incredibly readable.

Nice. To follow with Men at Arms.

Posted 2021-04-23.


Pyramids - Terry Pratchett

Pyramids was the first Discworld book I read, probably around 1992 or so when the junior school librarian finally convinced me that people liked them because they were good and I'd enjoy them too. Up to that point, I've got to admit, I wasn't much of a novel reader. After that, I was a serial consumer of Terry Pratchett books.

Even taking into account re-readings, I'll not have read it for more than twenty years, but it seems like time. It wasn't just me that liked the Terry Pratchett books, but also my mother. We read them during some hard times, and they helped. I'm having some more hard times right now, and a book I enjoyed and have fond memories of seemed appropriate.

It's as good as I remember it. The ideas, the jokes, the ideas-that-are-jokes and jokes-that-are-ideas are all there. It's dense with entertainment, and a plot that kept me reading. Nowadays most novels seem to be either huge doorstops or pretty short, and this is a compact little paperback, yet packing in 400 or so pages and covered with one of those Josh Kirby covers that put me off for so long but I now have fond memories of... it all feels right.

It's more than a security blanket, it's still a good story. Pyramids was a great introduction, just at the point where I felt Terry really hit his stride on the Discworld novels. A few years ago I felt a little impatient to hoist the Nome Trilogy onto the children - I knew there was a point in life where these books become accessible and, to the right little mind, it's a whole new world. I had a memory of the joy. Reading this, I've had a little of the joy back.

Posted 2021-04-18.


The Making of Prince of Persia, Journals 1985-1993 - Jordan Mechner

A present from a friend, I've been reading this while feeling a little under the weather. AFAICT, it's a self-published book by the game's author. I had not realised that the writer was both so young at the time of writing the game, and how much an Apple II thing it was. I always associated it with the PC, and it's all the more astonishing to think of it running on a 6502.

It's fascinating to read that Prince of Persia was basically a one-man-show. Rotoscoping the animation, doing most of the graphics, the coding, the game mechanics and level design, all one person. It's also really interesting to see how at times this became a part-time project, as Jordan was also getting deeply interested in becoming a film-maker, and spent a bunch of time jet-setting around (while being concerned he wasn't living it up enough! :).

These are clearly the journals of the author at the time, and the exhilaration of youth shines through. There are occasional insights into the past future - what will happen with FMV and CDROM? On the other hand, the journals are pretty verbatim and lack context. Mechner points out the journals represent his views at the time, and that they've changed since... but a bit of commentary from "grown-up Mechner" would have been nice. Many names are mentioned, but a lot of the time it's not clear who they are, so the journals feel... very personal, but not very useful.

Some of the incidental aspects feel weird but interesting. Throughout the course of the book, three people come down with cancer, like a surprise death sentence. I guess it fits with a person fresh out of university interacting with a working-age population and starting to see the surprises of life, but... it also feels like the '80s were a bit of a dangerous time.

Overall, by just delivering the journals of the time, and nothing else, the book feels like a bit of a lost opportunity. It's also not really a book about Prince of Persia, it's about a young, smart guy with a computer in the '80s being innovative and successful and exploring the possibilties. Not the book it could have been, but entertaining nonetheless.

Posted 2021-04-04.


A-Z of The Designers Republic - Ian Anderson

Way back, I signed up for the TDR book Kickstarter by Unit Editions, and a lot later I ended up with this huge and wonderful book with my name in a small font in a big list at the back. That was a few months ago, but I didn't want to review it before finishing reading it, and have been savouring it.

I've been a fan of The Designers Republic since I first saw their work - my initial contact points being WipeOut and Warp records, although their influence felt pervasive through the '90s. It's annoyingly difficult to get TDR media, at least at reasonable prices, so when I saw the Kickstarter I just had to have it.

And what a wonder it is. It's got the usual TDR Pantone flamboyancy and at its core is a full-colour, 500 page alphabetical catalogue of their works. The accompanying captions offer a great insight into their mindset (and how they were so much more thoughtful than those simply ripping off their style), and there's an interview at the start, so it's not just about the pretty (oh, so, pretty) pictures.

2020 has been tough, but against this backdrop having a book like this has been an escape, one that reminds me of different times, of possibilities and still captures the imagination now. It's lovely.

Posted 2020-12-27.


Beowulf - Maria Dahvana Headley

This was something of an internet sensation a few weeks/months ago, but it took a while for my copy to arrive, and then a while to read. It's a rather contemporary translation of Beowulf, famously starting "Bro!". It's very accessible, but not "street"y throughout - those parts mostly come through in speech. The rest of it is not just translation into modern language, but really plays with the language - lots of alliteration and assonance, lots of turns of phrase clearly trying to dig into the original's wording.

I'm really not into poetry. I've tried, but it doesn't stick. However, so much of this just wants to be read out loud. It's hard not to hear it in your head. It has immense energy to it, and is great fun to read.

The other great thing about it is that it's not without criticism. From the very first line, it's a world of "bro"s, with all that entails. A world that relies on individual "heroes" who eventually die for a big pile of gold that can't be defended by those left behind, and where so many kill each other pointlessly. This being the first version of Beowulf I've read, perhaps it's always there, but it really comes across here that they're a bunch of violent, posturing men.

Thousands of lines of ancient poetry's not my usual read, but this translation makes it sing. Highly recommended.

Posted 2020-11-21.


The Foundation License Manual for Radio Amateurs - Alan Betts, G0HIQ

This is perhaps my way of saying I've studied for and passed the foundation-level amateur radio license exam, and can now send off for my call-sign! A colleague at work mentioned that one of the changes due to coronavirus is that you can now take the exam online and skip the practical, which really reduces the barrier to entry around having to find a club etc. So I went for it!

I've never quite got interested in radio before. My father had some interest, and I saw a couple of books around the place - but I never understood things like SWR and side-bands and antenna design, and chatting with strangers over the radio never really appealed to me.

However, software-defined radio is pretty neat, and my long-term physics osmosis means that a lot of the technical aspects of radio make a lot more sense to me now. So, it seemed a fun time to go for it. The UK licensing system has three levels, with the foundation level being very simple. None of the levels need morse any more, which is a pleasant speed-bump removal. The higher levels are needed for building your own equipment, which is likely to be the direction I'm interested in.

Foundation-level knowledge is pretty basic - the electronics part incredibly so, and the mathematical elements really, really straightforward. I felt I got a good, if basic, introduction to antennas and feeders, propagation and EMC, for example. The regulatory and operational aspects are... well, they are what they are.

All this knowledge can be picked up from this book, or from a course (like this one that I joined). The Manual does feels like it's just for passing the exam - any subtlety or depth that isn't required is excised. Mathematical or physical detail is happily dropped. It's much more Educational Material than a book - it's A4 with stapled binding, and the text itself has a strong "plain English" vibe to it, which is a little... uninspiring.

This isn't to say it's bad per se. Indeed, it's a great way to build up that base-level knowledge. I haven't read any more advanced texts, but I imagine this is a great way to build up the basic knowledge assumed by other books which you can read if you want to go into the subject in more depth.

When I have the free time I plan to progress to the intermediate level (building equipment, remember? :), so in time expect a comparative review with the associated manual.

Posted 2020-07-19.


Agency - William Gibson

This is a sequel to The Peripheral. At the time, I found the time travel aspect of The Peripheral to be really weird - something quite so far away from our current science being plugged into the otherwise very grounded-feeling sci-fi of Gibson's work seemed odd to me. However, it was approached in a very Gibsonian way that avoided all the concerns about paradoxes. Coming back to the same world in this sequel, it feels natural and unforced.

And it turns out to be a useful tool: The alternate timelines mechanism provides a way for Gibson to poke at how the world broke down in 2016. Brexit and Trump meant the world stopped making sense, so he set the core action in a world where they didn't take place!

Otherwise, it's classic Gibson. At the small scale, it's all in the style and the feel - detail-oriented and film-like, and a little under-explained. At the grand scale it's about AI and power (themes going back to Neuromancer!). And throughout there's the feeling of prescience that in closer inspection is careful study of the present, with just a little nudge.

My father has been seriously ill, necessitating a number of cross-country trips. I've been reading this on the train, and it's been a wonderful distraction during some hard times. It's good stuff.

Posted 2020-07-11.


Good Strategy, Bad Strategy - Richard Rumelt

Business strategy had long been a mystery to me. Most of it seemed to fit into a pipeline of defining mission and vision and values and generally taking a cookie-cutter approach to defining your direction. Something always seemed to be missing. It's not unlike following a software-development methodology and hoping you generate good software, rather than relying on thought and understanding and judgement and all those other things that aren't a reproducable process.

That's why I love this book. This book is happy to call all that "bad strategy". Good strategy is hard, and having a good strategy is thus a significant advantage. The author does still have a process, but it's simplistic-looking: identify the problem, design an overall strategy to address it, and then work out how to convert that into concrete actions.

And, like many simple things, it's still hard. Large organisations find it tough to admit what the problem is. People mistake goals for plans. Corporate strategies are disconnected from action. To take a simple example, "grow" is neither a useful objective in itself, nor an actionable strategy.

The book is remarkably dense. Most management books have a simple idea that they repeat a couple of times. This book has a core thesis, but also a plethora of associated ideas. A number of concrete examples are provided that really help ground the discussion.

I find Richard Rumult's background interesting and reassuring - at the start of his career, he was an engineer on the Voyager programme, trying to balance a system design. I like the idea that strategy fits with an analytic mindset that extrapolates out of a quantitative background. Rumelt is at great pains to point out that good strategy is not like everyday engineering, or "turning the crank" as he puts it. It's much more like science, hypothesis building. I see parallels with the Lean Start-up ideas.

I love this book. So few books are willing to say "there's a step here that involves thinking hard" rather than "follow this pattern and you'll be fine". So few books take a highly-abstract concept and just bring it into practical focus while retaining the general nature of the subject. And, quite frankly, few business books are as fun as this.

Posted 2020-05-31.


The Lean Startup - Eric Ries

That executive MBA I've been quietly working on has become accredited, which means I've accidentally started doing a real MBA. Ooops. Anyway, one of the courses is on entrepreneurship, and I wanted to read up a little more on it (I don't exactly expect to create a start-up, but the ideology permeates tech, so it seems worth understanding). The course was mostly aligned around Steve Blank's model, but it's hard to get a cheap copy of The Startup Owner's Manual, and this book is a lot cheaper and more well-known so I thought I'd read it instead.

This book is written by someone who really knows how to break an idea down to simple components, and possibly beyond. It's split into three main sections with single-word titles ("Vision", "Steer", "Accelerate"), each containing four single-word-titled chapters, each of which is short, focused and accessible, if potentially over-simplified. It is as if the book has been written by someone who really, really lives by the principles they're espousing in it.

And what are those principles? The main one is to not waste work. Don't do things that your customers don't want. To do that, do science: have a hypothesis, do what you need to test it, learn and adapt, and accelerate that learning cycle as quickly as possible. The book feels like it's built using those principles, as it contains nothing superfluous and is honed to deliver its message unambiguously, as if it's been test-read and edited a thousand times. It's a product that demonstrates itself.

It's a compelling vision of how to do a thing I don't really have much stomach for. I don't feel the need to try a thing that has a 10% chance of getting me 10x what I'm earning now. It's fun to be a spectator, though!

Posted 2020-04-11.


The Case Study Handbook - William Elliot

Don't tell anyone, but I've been doing an online non-accredited executive MBA. I like MOOCs, and when someone offers the chance to bundle up a whole pile of "how business works" topics into a convenient format, I'm going to take it.

One element of this course is doing case studies. Unlike an HBS degree or whatever, the course is not heavy on case studies, but a few are thrown in as graded exercises. The issue with this is that without practice or explanation, it's not clear what the case study method is about and how to best answer case studies.

Reading around the topic, it seems the aim of the case study method is to be a bit more like business - rather than be handed ideas on a plate, you're loaded up with a pile of information, some of which may be irrelevant or distracting, and you're expected to sort it into a structured format and pull out the ideas yourself.

I must admit, I don't fully buy it, at least as far as it being more "realistic" than more usual methods of teaching. Maybe there are jobs where you're handed a pile of docs and asked to analyse them, but my career has involved a lot more analysis through iteration and talking to people.

Having said that, business people seem to love them, and I guess they're the equivalent of a big pile of exercises to work through on, say, a maths course. So how do you approach them?

That's what this book is about. The short version is "Don't read the full case study text, with all the irrelevancies and distractions. Think about the questions you're asked, build decision criteria needed to decide the answer to those questions, and then pull apart the text looking for evidence for those criteria." The long version is this book.

It's painfully formulaic. It's the kind of book that carefully tells you what it's going to tell you, tells you it, and then tells you it's told you it. Perhaps this is thoroughness, but... nah, it's just spun out. The book is illustrated with three case studies that pretty much take up a quarter of the book, and represent some of the best content of the book. They do make the whole idea of case studies much clearer.

Is the book worth it? Probably not. It's long-winded and overpriced for the amount of content it provides, even if the core content is good. I think it's slightly leaning on the "HBR Press" publisher. Maybe this level of structure is good for a young business school student, but it didn't really work for me.

Posted 2020-02-08.


Birds: The Art of Ornithology

This little book from the Natural History Museum was a present. It's a very strange book, being a mixture of pretty pictures and a dense and fairly academic text giving the history of bird artists. It really isn't a bird book, being so concentrating on the lives of the artists, and the pictures chosen are not so much chosen as birds as examples of art.

Of course, I'm a completionist, so I read the full text, rather than just looking at the pretty pictures. The writing alternates between incredible tedium of enumerating a bunch of obscure bird artists, with the occasional story of completely unbelievable and amazing lives.

Discussing the history of bird art really brings the difficulties of historical science to the fore. Without photography, a drawing or a dead bird is the best you're likely to get to render the animal. Neither scales - you can't give everyone a huge collection of dead animals, and high-quality colour reproductions of images were incredibly expensive and manually intensive, so that many of the books of birds ran to a few hundred copies at most. Travel was extremely hard and dangerous, so knowledge of wildlife from outside Europe travelled slowly. In such a world, science must have been incredibly hard.

One of the themes that emerges towards the end of the book was how the gun was eventually replaced by binoculars as the best way of identifying a distant bird. Between that and the regular depiction of extinct birds throughout the book, there's a strong theme that our history with birds has been a somewhat messy one.

Posted 2020-01-03.


Radical Candor - Kim Scott

Ok! I have a new favourite management book!

Kim Scott's "Radical Candor" approach to feedback was recommended by a manager I strongly rate, and that approach is pretty easy to summarise and is well-explained in a couple of YouTube videos (roughly, be really blunt with people, but make it really clear that you're doing this because you want them to improve, and be open to criticism yourself). It was helpful enough that I thought to get the book.

The book does cover roughly the same ground, but then expands on the ideas quite considerably, in a way that makes the book more than a retread of a 5 minute talk. There are plenty of examples and ideas from Kim's career at Google, at Apple, and running her own start-up. I think it's the best book I've seen at summarising the good bits of Google's people philosophy (and tempering those ideas with her experience at Apple and elsewhere).

It's not perfect. The second half drags a bit, as it tends to in these books (once the basic ideas are down, the rest is fleshing out). On the other hand, if you're wanting to use it as an ongoing reference, rather than a one-off read, I think those sections should be helpful.

Some of the background makes me a little sad. For all the talk of Google being engineering-led, Scott is another Harvard MBA. Early in the book, it talks about the way that she got her job being to contact her classmate, Sheryl Sandberg. At an internal presentation, I heard a senior engineering leader talk about their career - and again, they got their path from knowing an even more senior Googler (and our ex-head-of-cloud seemed to get their job from regularly doing dog walks with one of our senior VPs). This book tells you how to be a good people manager, but the secret of getting a good job does appear to be networking.

That grumpiness aside, I hugely recommend this book to anyone who wants to be an effective team leader.

Posted 2020-01-03.


Essential Ornithology - Graham Scott

I've now been vaguely into bird-watching for a couple of years, and have a few books on the subject. Except most of these books are basically pictures of birds, plus maybe some advice on where to find them. Nothing that's really "how birds work."

So, finally I bought this book, and it fills the spot nicely. It truly is just the essentials - it's an academic text on ornithology, but at 150 pages it's very much just an introduction to the subject. There are many references to landmark papers for those who are interested (hint: I'm not that interested!) and side bars on specific pieces of research, but otherwise it's pretty straightforward.

My previous forays into areas I don't know about has been to grab a giant authoritative textbook and work my way through it (like this). This book was something different, being a small, light and unassuming text. While designed to be some part of a degree course, it felt kind of like a textbook for an A-level in birds!

I think it's somewhat pricey for its size if bought new (I bought second-hand), but otherwise I'd highly recommend it as a quick introduction to ornithology.

Posted 2019-10-06.


Fingers in the Sparkle Jar - Chris Packham

This was a birthday present to me, and is the memoirs of Chris Packham, the incredibly-enthusiastic-about-animals guy from The Really Wild Show. It's sold as a book about how "it would take a magical relationship with a Kestrel for a young boy to learn the lessons of love, life, death and acceptance."

That's a total mis-selling of this book.

It's actually a story of someone growing up with Asperger's. All the nature stuff is a channel for the obsession, but so much of the book is isolation, differentness, and finding joy in the things you care about.

I wouldn't say I'm completely outside the spectrum. One of the nice things about working in engineering at Google is that I'm pretty much normal for the place. However, Chris's description are completely alien to me. He's so into nature, in the whole way of getting into the slime, the goo, the discomfort, the life and the death. The stories of him haphazardly killing the wildlife he loves are strange and painful to me (and feel rather symbolic).

I found the prose incredibly hard to read, too. As well as continually jumping around chronologically, the text is massively overwrought. Remove the metaphors, the similes, the factoids anchoring it in the '70s, and most of all the huge weight of adjectives, and there wouldn't be much left (but it would be interesting and readable!). I can't tell if this is deliberate or not, but it seems a perfect metaphor for being in constant sensory overload, a book that drives you to want to find some peace and quiet, separation from the blur.

In many ways, I don't like this book. It hurts too much, and it's a pain to read. On the other hand it's the best insight into the autistic spectrum that I've read, being so much more real than anything else. Eat your heart out, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. :p

Posted 2019-09-08.


Learn to Sail in a Weekend - John Driscoll

This book is the book I failed to learn to sail from in the '90s. I tried sailing with my father in my teens and never got into it. When my father found out I was trying it again, he gave me the book!

This is classic early '90s Dorling Kindersley, with a graphic design style that both continues through to their books today, and has an incredible '90s feel to it. You won't be surprised to hear that the fashions in the photos are nice and '90s. Illustrating how to learn to sail using a Laser seems a little cruel, but there you go.

The book is "in association with the RYA", and the advice seems sound enough - with much more content than the modern RYA start sailing book. As usual, it suffers from having to explain everything for both aft-mainsheet and centre-mainsheet rigging, and some of the steps are a bit obscured by the heavy "labelled diagram" approach, but generally it's pretty clear.

The "learn to sail in a weekend" structure does match the pattern of a RYA level 1 course. There are copious pictures and illustrations throughout, but I must admit I really wouldn't want to learn from a book alone. A course, every time!

The last few pages go beyond the initial weekend, and I'm amused to see that it covers roll tacks and roll gybes, which were missed out of my Level 1 and 2 courses, and I've only recently had a go at.

Posted 2019-08-17.


The Dip - Seth Godin

Subtitled "The extraordinary benefits of knowing when to quit (and when to stick)", this is more of a large pamphlet than a book that I obtained from a lovely second hand book stall in Shrewsbury market. I'm indecisive around career stuff, vaguely recognised Seth Godin as an author, and thought this sounded intriguing.

The core thesis is composed of several ideas that work together: 1. That being the best at something has outsized benefits compared to being an also ran. 2. Specialisation and focus is how you achieve that. 3. That getting to be the best is a long, hard slog, which many people give up on. 4. Keeping going through that slog through to being the best is your advantage, your distinguishing factor. 5. If you're not going to make it through that Dip, give up and give up early rather than waste time.

There's a pleasant simplification here, and I think there's real value in examining how you're doing and knowing when to make a change because you're not making progress and cannot make progress. On the other hand, I don't really buy the whole package.

Working at Google means you get to observe a fair number of very bright, successful people. Indeed, world's best people for specific areas. There's less specialisation than one might think. People have hobbies and interests, they switch areas from time to time. Perhaps they're the world's best at being adaptable, or applying an analytic mindset, or always learning. It doesn't look like monomania, though.

On the other hand, as a book about business, rather than people, it's interesting. Being the best at something can be viewed as being about differentiating yourself in the market, rather than racing to the bottom on a commodity. The dip is your competitive advantage - whatever it is that's stopping the competition doing what you do. Of course the dip is hard - it's hard for you, but it should be harder for the competition.

It's short. It's thought-provoking. I don't particularly agree with it. Meh.

Posted 2019-08-16.


What They Teach You At Harvard Business School - Philip Delves Broughton

I've been a manager for a while, and although I've been studying the theory of team management for a while, I recently decided to learn a bit more about the theory of business generally. So, when I saw this on a recent charity shop book dept. run, I snapped it up!

Some of the book skims over the contents of the course. It's interesting to see what goes into the a modern MBA. The book describes HBS's case-study-driven approach, and how lectures are organised. There's also a fair amount of coverage of, well, the marketing around the course. There's a lot of "you've won in life just because you've been accepted into HBS". There's a lot of being proud of famous alumni, with the possible exceptions of G.W. Bush and Jeff Skilling.

The book also describes the stereotypical career path of an HBS grad, as seen in the peer group of the author. There's a lot of private equity, hedge funds and investment banks, despite the claims that HBS develops leaders who work in all areas - not just in business, but bringing the light of a business mind to all humanity's greatest challenges.

The author himself makes an interesting character. He's an Oxford grad who went into journalism, and was quite successful at it - becoming an overseas bureau chief for a major newspaper. He could see the impending decline of journalism in the internet age, and decided to try business. It wasn't super-successful (after all, here he's still writing non-fiction rather than starting a business), but I think he's now a business journalist/author.

On the other hand, many on the course are pretty young, with very little practical business experience. It seems weird to structure the course like this, so the content is purely theoretical to so many. Having said that, I look back on my PhD and think a couple of years industry experience wouldn't have gone amiss before starting that.

The book's not a damning indictment, but it doesn't paint the place in a super-rosy light either. I was disappointed by the superficial stuff - the way the place seems to have such a juvenile drinking culture, for a place where apparently world leaders are being created. Philip's main complaint seems to be rather more philosophical: that HBS believes it's creating world leaders, but it's creating business leaders that apply a reductionist business mindset in situations where they should not.

Posted 2019-08-16.