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.


Dinghy Techniques - Jeremy Evans (RYA)

I went on my Level 1 RYA sailing course in April, and didn't get as much practice in as I'd have liked. On the other hand, I like reading up on the theory of things, the "Start Sailing" book was a bit shallow, and I wanted to fill the practice gap. So, I bought this book.

It covers single-handed and double-handed dinghies, at the level of recreational sailing, regatta sailing, and high-performance sailing. I wasn't sure what "regatta sailing" was, and the book never says so explicitly, but it appears to be "trying to sail fast without buying a fancy high-performance boat". As well as the time on the water, it covers rigging and launching. There weren't any topics I was surprised to find present, but it seems to cover most stuff.

Is it any good? I don't know, as I'm not very good! Dinghy sailing is one of those things where you need hands-on experience. Reading from a book is insufficient. There are lots of parts where, when I read it, it either just makes no particular sense to me, or I can pull out the meaning of the sentence, but it's just unrelated to sailing as I've done it at my level. Having said that, little bits are now falling into place as I've been learning on the water, and I can see the book being something that I can come back to as I get better.

While it doesn't really give me next steps in what to do and how to learn, it does still give me an idea of the more advanced skills I know nothing of at the moment - of spinnakers and trapezes, for example. Having said that, I very much doubt I'll ever get into high-performance sailing. :)

Books on practical skills are hard to do well, but it tries hard - there are copious photos and illustrations throughout the book to make things clearer, and they've pulled in some impressive-sounding sailors to demonstrate. Different boats do things a little differently, which makes the book a little trickier to make accessible, but it works around this by using a good number of different boats (even if it occasionally feels like an advert for RS!).

All in all, I think this falls into the category of "books I'd probably recommend, but I don't really know enough about the subject".

Posted 2019-06-13.


Trillion Dollar Coach - Eric Schmidt, Jonathan Rosenberg adn Alan Eagle

This is partly a follow-up to How Google Works by the same authors, and partly a paean to the late Bill Campbill. Well, really, it's mostly the latter. Mildly internally hyped at Google with a talk, I thought it interesting enough to buy a copy.

On the former subject, How Google Works mostly focused on the individuals - the "smart creatives". This book fills that out with discussions of teamwork. In particular, it glosses over/builds on Project Aristotle. However, rather than try to build on the research there, it really just tries to tie back Bill Campbell's intuitive approach to this, when they happen to match up.

Really, though, the book is about Bill Campbell. He was hugely influential across big chunks of Silicon Valley (in a kind of hidden power kind of way), and his main contribution at Google was to act as a team coach - he would coach the executives, but in such a way as to make them work as a team and be effective as a group - he would ensure that any inter-personal problems would not simmer.

I find it amusing that we have this high-tech organisation fully of really bright people, and there's this person who's all about the feelings and stuff, and being all Deanna Troi in Star Trek: The Next Generation, except it's an ex American football coach whose main techniques appear to be giving people bear hugs and telling them to pull their head out of their ass. I would love to see TNG redone with Troi replaced with Campbell.

Aaaanyway, it does sound like Bill Campbell was exceptionally gifted as a person who could make executives work together as a team and bring out the best in people. There are a few hundred executives for whom reminsicing about Bill is enough. For most of the readers, though, there's a question of "are there lessons to be learned here that can make me better at leading?", and it's really not clear to me.

Before his life at Google and generally coaching in Silicon Valley, he was CEO at Intuit, and before that an exec at Apple back in the early days (and before that, an American football coach). So, he had a deep background in tech coming from the sales and marketing angle. His coaching seems to have been coupled to his networking, so he had the power to make or break careers (did he identify talent or did his blessing create the success?).

What of the advice? There are general platitudes about treating people as people, supporting them, coaching, being there for them, practising radical candour, etc. There's also some pleasantly specific ideas sprinkled through - how to pair leaders to work on a problem to build up a leadership team, how to do peer feedback surveys, how to run effective 1-1s, etc.

Some other parts are more "Why we liked Bill", and don't say anything useful, or are contradictory. Bill apparently had no time for bullshitters, but at the same time had unwavering faith in Steve Jobs, for whom the phrase "reality distortion field" was created. Bill was very generous, but also very, very rich, which makes generousity a lot easier. Part of the book talks about trusting people and helping them grow, but then there was an example of letting someone go because, in an area that had been growing rapidly, they had demonstrated their ability and said they wanted more responsibility, and Bill's view was not to give it. Apparently it was a "team first" decision, but never really explained.

I think this is where the limits of the book lie, and it's a huge limitation - it's easy to talk about keeping positive and supporting people, but sometimes businesses fail, and sometimes people problems can't be solved with more trust. The book fails miserably to cover genuinely difficult cases with anything like nuance that would provide meaningful insight.

The book touches on Bill's belief in "operational excellence" from time to time - you can't just coach people and bring them together, you also actually have to Deliver Stuff and make the business happen. The trade-offs here aren't clear either. As Intuit CEO there was a quarter where it looked like they weren't going to make their numbers. The board were ok with this, as various things were going on which explained the situation. Bill drove to hit the numbers anyway - deeming this important operationally. What were the costs in human terms of this decision? Not discussed by this book.

This is, in other words, a cheerleading book that lacks substance. Rather ironic, given the subject matter is a person who, from what everyone says in the book, backed up his people skills with real leadership strength.

It's also not clear to me who this book is for. Or rather, it seems to me clear who it's for, and that's going to be a much smaller number of people than copies of the book that'll be sold. To give you an idea, it's got a section on how to run board meetings. It's pretty much written for C-suite execs of silicon valley companies, people who probably knew Bill in the first place.

Posted 2019-06-10.


Start Sailing - RYA

This is the freebie book when you go on the RYA "Level 1 - Start Sailing" course. You can tell how far beyind I am on book reviews, since I went on the course on 13-14 April!

Let's ignore the book for a moment, and focus on the sailing. I'd last tried sailing something over 20 years ago, and never got on with it. Cold and wet wasn't my thing, and the physics of sailing towards the wind was not intuitive to me. Fast-forward, and I'm a lot better at ignoring discomfort and non-intuitive physics. I've got to an age where vague exercise in the outdoors where you're not thinking about computers or maths seems a good idea. Being in London, there's plenty of water nearby (including docks, as well as the Thames), so it's pretty convenient.

The book is pretty basic. Sailing, like many other sports and physical activities, is best learnt by tuition and practice. The book covers everything you learn in the course, but more as a reminder than teaching. It'd be foolish trying to sail on your own having only read the book, but it does provide value as it's very easy to forget bits of the course over time if you don't have a reference.

I believe you can buy this book separately from the course. Don't. It's useful if and only if you've been on the course. For those who've been on the course, it's pretty handy.

Posted 2019-06-08.


How Music Works - David Byrne

If anyone else had written this, perhaps it'd have been called "A Sociology of Music". This is David Byrne's multi-hundred-page treatise on how music fits into society - music as played vs. as listened to, venues, classical vs. pop music, the music business and much more. His eclectic background fills out his (quite personal) argument.

Overall, it's very thoughtful. I was never into Talking Heads at the time, but visiting it now, there's so much of interest there. Growing up, I only ever really saw self-assured, extrovert Rock or Pop Star, and retrospectively filling in the gaps with people like David Byrne is fascinating.

I'd bought it for my wife, who's more of a fan, and she dipped in and out of it, while I'm much more of an end-to-end reader. It's a chunky, well-designed and pleasant-to-read book. I don't think it's made me fundamentally rethink music (or rather, how it fits into society), but it's certainly made me think more about it.

Posted 2019-06-02.


Think Box - Johnny Ball

You have to be of a certain age to remember Johnny Ball, a kids TV presenter from the late '70s and '80s. He did popular education shows on... maths! Yep, kids TV did maths, without being dull. Amazing. I received this book some time in the earlyish '80s, and must admit I never read it properly.

My son's now inherited it and given it rather more attention than I did at the time. Re-reading it now, it's pretty awesome. There's a whole pile of dumb maths jokes, tricks, etc. For example, it teaches you how to know the day of the week any date falls on. It covers some real maths stuff, too. For example, it covers the platonic solids - complete with how to construct pop-up versions, find all the possible nets to make them etc. It mentions simple versions of the Brouwer fixed point theorem in passing. That kind of thing. It's surprisngly good, and I'm sad I never appreciated it at the time.

But then I'm glad my son's reading it. :)

Posted 2019-03-13.


Birds of Washington - Stan Tekiela

According to the receipt, I bought this on February 4 last year! I got it the last time I was in Seattle, so I could identify the various birds I was seeing while out there (as they were mostly completely different from what I'd seen at home!). This means I've been doing my limited dabbling in birdwatching for well over a year now. Time flies, I guess! I'm still not terribly good at it.

This is a pretty simple field guide. Nice and pocket-sized, with each bird covered on two facing pages - one big colourful photo, and then a list of facts and notes. There's always the question of how to organise such a book. Here, they've gone for organised by primary colour, and then by size. Mostly this is pretty intuitive, although there are some birds where you have to decide what the primary colour really is. Oh, and sometimes the same bird occurs on a couple of pages because the male and female are distinct colours. In any case, the structure works well.

Why did it take me a year to read? Well, it's a reference and not really compulsive reading. However, I plodded through it because it's kinda fascinating to see the variety of birds that exist several thousand miles away - for the most part they're very different, with a few world-wide classics chucked in. As usual, I can't vouch for the factual accuracy, but it did help me identify those species I did see, as well telling me about a hundred other species I didn't!

Posted 2019-02-02.