The Truth - Terry Pratchett

Here we go again, maybe slightly earlier than expected: Another Discworld book.

Having worked through all the Vimes books, this is my foray into the industrial revolution books. It's time-travel back to somewhat earlier in the series, the novel that followed The Fifth Elephant. The plot is a bit less weavy than some of the others I've read recently, consisting of William de Worde creating the newspaper, and a plan to depose Vetinari featuring some suspiciously Kray-brothers-like characters.

The attempt to overthrow Vetinari feels a little cookie-cutter, not unlike the poisoning in Feet of Clay, or the dragon in Guards, Guards. Vetinari remains surprisingly passive and comes out ok, again. I guess it's his indirect approach, but generally... Vetinari feels less developed in this book than the Watch books. Similarly, Vimes has a rather different feel.

To be honest, I'm not sure if this is deliberate or not - I wouldn't put it past Pratchett. The Watch books take the view of Vimes, and his view of the Patrician. This book, from the point of view of William de Worde, see Vimes and the Patrician as an outsider might, and that puts a different spin on things. So maybe it's deliberate.

This is the first book to really focus on change happening. The improvement of the Watch has been the slow-burn, background change in the ways of Ankh-Morpork. The Clacks then sidled in, representing the introduction of the information economy, without being in the foreground. This book, finally, brings Change to the foreground, with moveable type replacing engraving (with the permission of the Patrician).

I find this extremely notable because earlier books raised the threat of beings from the Dungeon Dimensions appearing whenever earth-like technologies risked emerging. It's a pivotal moment, and the change in philosophy is significant. I think it represents Terry becoming confident enough with the world to let it evolve. The irony is clearly not lost on Pratchett - he has the Patrician turn up to question William de Worde about the magical risks of the press, specifically name-checking the events of Moving Pictures and Soul Music!

As usual, Terry uses the novel to put out a thesis on the book's theme: Here, it's much about the simultaneous power and banality of The News, the credulity of the public, and the somewhat liquid nature of "Truth" in the press. William de Worde is an enjoyable, if not particularly pleasant character, strongly driven by a sense of... something he's not entirely clear on, but he knows he's right. He makes a great Stereotypical Editor, and simultaneously has a powerful belief in telling the truth, and doing so in a way that stretches the truth right to its breaking point.

This book also introduces Otto von Chriek, a rather good vampire who also crops up from time to time later in the series. Lots of the regular characters get a look-in, and it does feel like a regular Discworld novel. However, it's a little... pedestrian. I felt the tension never really rises (and resolves), in the way that it does in a number of the others. I'm not sure why that is - perhaps Terry is still finding his feet in a world where change happens? Is this a weakness with the structure of the industrial revolution novels? It's not a problem with late Discworld books, since I didn't feel this was a problem with the later Watch novels. I guess I'll find out as I read the others.

When it comes down to it, mediocre Discworld is still good. I would also say this book is several notches above how I felt about e.g. Jingo - it just doesn't match books like Snuff. Onward to the industrial revolution!

Posted 2021-07-28.


Thud! - Terry Pratchett

This is the penultimate Vimes book, but the last one for me to read, due my admin error last time!

It's good. Not quite as good as Snuff, but good nonetheless.

While the Watch series tend to cover social issues, this one is really just "two species with thousands of years of emnity, and Vimes trying to avoid the whole thing boiling over".

There was actually a lot less character development than I expected from reading Snuff. I was expecting both Willikins and the Summoning Dark to be rather more developed, as an interpolation, but most of the development seems to have landed in Snuff, glossed over by a few years of time passing.

Some themes from The Fifth Elephant are expanded on. "Devices" are introduced - apparently super-advanced technology from the dawn of time - but not yet heavily used. Feels like the set-up for future stories. The Watch finally gets a vampire. The novel moves things forward a little, but not a huge amount.

To my frustration, the finale of the book moves the action from Ankh-Morpork to the countryside again. I think this pattern is used to deprive Vimes of the ability to just call in a couple of hundred guards, and make him a little more of the individual superhero, but I wish he didn't get called out of the city quite so often!

All in, it's pretty good. It's not Snuff, but neither is it Jingo. A fun read.

Posted 2021-07-22.


On Liberty - John Stuart Mill

After reading How to be a Liberal, I decided to go back to the original source material. J.S. Mill is pretty much the founder of liberalism, and people seem to love this book.

Not gonna lie, it was hard work. The language is what you'd expect from the mid-nineteenth century, with three-page paragraphs, and chapters that fill a third of the book. Sentences run on like a marathon, and take several attempts to parse correctly, while your brain gently strangles itself. Perhaps I should be trying to just immerse myself in the prose, but in my current state it was something of a battle.

Not all of the battle was with the wording, but also with the approach. The intent is to be a self-contained argument in favour of liberalism, including defenses against common counters. As such, you get to wade through a large number of answers to objections that you probably don't have, and can already see the flaws in.

I got the most value out of thinking of it in terms of an historical document. It covers no social issues, being the liberalism of rich white dudes wanting to do their thing. This is ok - this is still a step up from what went before! And, of course, Mill was in favour of equality of the sexes, even if his approach is laissez-faire. The examples are drawn from contemporary events now largely irrelevant. There's a strong Christian bias even as it pushes for freedom of religion, and even hints at maybe, possibly, not looking down too much on atheism. Knowledge of classical references is assumed.

In many ways, it reminds me of the Lions' book on early Unix. It provides excellent historical context, and helps us understand how we got to where we are today. It provides a simplified version of where we are now that can help (and sometimes hinder) understanding the current state of the world. In the end, though, its direct application to the world now is limited.

I'll now take a quick skim through the content, on a chapter-by-chapter basis....

After the introduction is a chapter on liberty of thought and discussion. Much of the chapter feels like an absolute argument in favour of free speech - Voltaire-style stuff. In light of what we've seen since, the questions of misinformation and hate speech come up. Hate speech is addressed in the next chapter - incitement to violence is not on. Misinformation is not discussed - how does a liberal society defend against those who deliberately undermine it? I guess this is only something you think about as you experience it.

The book moves on to "individuality", which is really more about extending that liberty to action. This does feel like a fight against the constraints of a Victorian society - I feel modern society is somewhat better at letting people be themselves, with a few raised eyebrows. It's also interesting to see China used as an example of uniformity, pre-revolution. Something so culturally strong that it persists well over 150 years later, after a revolution!

I wonder how Mill would approach contemporary issues. He seems to be against deliberately censuring those you disagree with, even if this is not illegal, and only applied at a social level. I feel he would be somewhat against "cancel culture", although he was not dealing with issues of equality and the more social aspects of liberalism as understood now.

There's some discussion of how variety is important in order to generate new ideas and innovate - and this variety includes variety in education level, wealth, etc. Effectively, Mill is arguing for inequality at this point. I feel this is well-refuted now: By giving opportunity to a wider set of people, they will have the ability to contribute and innovate in areas that they otherwise would not. The world is rich enough, and people varied enough, that offering everyone the same opportunities doesn't lead to uniformity, it leads to diversity as people specialise and follow their personal dreams. Equality, done correctly, does not lead to uniformity, but is liberating.

The following chapter is about the limits to society's authority over people. He defends Mormonism on a liberal basis, even if he's not a fan. He deems their polygamy acceptable, as long as people are able to leave Mormon society, so that they're freely choosing to partake in it or not, despite the obvious sexism involved. This seems a weakness. Despite spending much of the book talking about the legal and social aspects of limiting individuality, there's little acknowledgement that leaving a social group you've spent your entire life in, where all your family are, is not easy. Avoiding polygamy by giving up all you've ever known is not a reasonable trade - so is polygamy acceptable after all? In modern times, the question of FGM is a similar topic - so much social pressure means that even if it were optional in some societies, it may not be in practice. I don't think liberalism need accept things so loaded with social pressure.

Following up on the issue of disinformation, towards the end of the chapter is the idea that a liberal society that falls to barbarism is already weak, and that liberalism needs no defense against barbarism. The rise of fascism and communism in the early 20th century, and contemporary nationalism and disinformation hints that... maybe liberalism is almost permanently weak?! The idea that liberalism is naturally robust is... speculation, and poor speculation at that. Surely a politics that expresses little certainty, that encourages variety, and is fundamentally honest and optimistic, is a ripe target for disinformation and abuse, unless deliberately defended? Liberalism needs an immune system. It must not assist in its own disassembly.

Finally, there are some applications. They're an interesting insight into the contemporary issues of the mid-nineteenth century. A lot of Mill's opinion could be described as "go for it!". There's an assumption that people are good judges of risk, and can make rational decisions. This is... clearly not true. Classical liberalism is Unix. You asked for it, you got it. Sorry you lost everything (not sorry). I believe the modern liberal approach is safety catches. If someone, clearly and rationally-enough wants to do something stupid and dangerous that doesn't hurt others... I guess that's ok, but there should be a few hoops to jump through first.

In a similar vein, Mill thinks it's acceptable to sell poisons like arsenic, as long as a register is kept of sales, since there are non-murderous uses. I find this interesting because of the degree of externalities involved - being murdered is a huge constraint on your liberty, so limiting the supply of arsenic, even given the inconvenience on non-murderers, no longer seems like an unreasonable trade-off. I imagine Mill would have been in favour of US-style gun laws, despite them looking distinctly sub-optimal now, at least from this side of the Atlantic.

Mill also decides that people should not be able to sell themselves into slavery. They are not at liberty to give up their own liberty. I think a further implication is that suicide should not be legal - as this is another form of giving up one's liberty to act - but I find it most interesting that the subject is not raised. I don't know if this is because it's too tough for a mid-Victorian book to handle (after all, it tries to steer clear of atheism as much as possible), or just because Mill hasn't been thinking about these cases.

My suspicions lie with the former. There's a strange irony that a book that deals with being free to say whatever you like, in order to sell its own thesis, cannot itself be fully candid.

As I say, reading this was hard work. There were parts that were interesting and thought-provoking, but mostly because their simplicity revealed the complexity of the modern world. To some degree, I begrudge the time I spent reading it. Maybe I get to look a little more erudite for having done so? Probably not.

Posted 2021-07-13.


Snuff - Terry Pratchett

Another couple of weeks, another Vimes book. And darn it, I chose the wrong one. Thud! was next chronologically, but I didn't realise this until I was far away from my copy of Thud! and well into Snuff.

As such, it's quite the time jump. Sam Vines junior, who was born at the end of Night Watch is now six years old, and Willikins has developed hugely. Vimes is clearly the Patrician's right-hand man at this point. It feels like there are minor spoilers for Thud!, but it's also readable as a stand-alone book.

The Watch books allow Terry to be vocal on social issues, and that's not changing here. Upping the stakes as usual, here he takes on the Discworld's version of slavery! Not a light subject, but he handles it well nonetheless. In a slightly-surprising-to-me nod to the Round World, the slavery is tied up with tobacco, hence the (slightly overloaded, since there are hints of genocide) title.

So, I'm sad this is the last Watch book, because it's another great story. Once again, Vimes is taken out of the city, in order to give him space to grow. The whole Watch sequence has been a fantastic exercise in growing and changing a character, ending up with a powerful leader who has come from the ranks, deserves his success, and is still mindful of the magic of rank. It's another "how to do leadership" book.

When I look at this book, and look back to The Colour of Magic, it's fascinating to see how the focus and approach has changed. Which is not to say Pratchett would have necessarily been the best-selling success if he started out with night watch novels, but I think they capture more of him, and I'm glad he had the chance to write them.

It's strange the things you notice in these books. It's well over 100 pages in before Real Plot starts, but you don't care. Pratchett's writing at the per-page level is still wonderful. It was interesting to see Wee Mad Arthur retcon'd as a Nac Mac Feegle (I've still to read The Wee Free Men). Also, it was good to see Sybil as an active character in the plot, not just someone to worry over Vimes, but someone who, in comparison to Vimes's outspoken voice and immediate action, could step back, bite her tongue, and play the strategic move that makes all the difference. She's been portrayed as a force to be reckoned with, and it's nice to see her act that way.

It's really weird to be writing this having not read Thud!, but this does feel like a fitting end to the Night Watch series. It's clearly not the end to Vimes's career, but sadly the rest will never be documented!

Posted 2021-07-10.


How to be a Liberal - Ian Dunt

It's politics time! Expect the usual talking around the book, rather than of the book.

I joined the Liberal Democrats at the start of 2017, when it was clear that they were the only major party that wasn't unhinged, as well as conveniently having policies and a philosophy that seemed to roughly align with my view. I never really got into the details of it all, but now, having some time on my hands, I've been catching up.

Ian Dunt provided some entertaining, insightful and above all sweary analysis of UK politics during the recent grimness of Brexit, so given he wrote a book on Liberalism, it seemed a great place to start.

It turns out that it's reasonably hard going, given it's really a multi-hundred-year history of liberal thought. The historical parts have that history feeling to them, and the discussion of modern times are... quite depressing, frankly, once you lay bare the nationalism and damage to truth that has happened. And it's not short.

Having said that, I think it's the right approach - by discussing the historical evolution of liberal thought, you can incrementally build up from the simple idea that people should be pretty much free to do what they like as long as it's not getting in the way of others, through to modern social liberalism, in a way that seems fairly logical. And that depressing section at the end about recent history is also a decent call to arms.

It does feel somewhat like this is Dunt's personal thesis on liberalism - there must be enough source material to be able to pick and choose rather carefully, but the book should make you think about this, even if it doesn't raise it explicitly: It makes the point that a liberal should always have an element of doubt (if you know the answer for sure, dictating what others should be doing becomes easy!), and that the rational approach seeks refutations to held beliefs, not just confirmation. The book's pretty much saying "You should be reading other stuff", and handily has an extensive "further reading" section at the end.

Despite all that, it sell liberalism in a way that strongly appeals to me. The individualism inherent in liberalism is not "screw community, we're all doing our own thing", it's a way of saying the population is diverse, and "the will of the people" is illusory. Liberalism fights against the tyranny of the majority, and rejects "enemy of the people" and "elites vs. the common people" as manipulation, since real people are way more complicated.

To counter the threat of concentrated power, liberals build systems that have a balance of powers. So, when judges required the government get the consent of parliament to give notice of Brexit (classic balance of powers), and the newspaper headline "Enemies of the People" came up, that was textbook illiberal stuff. Which is a nice theoretical basis for why this was horrid Daily Mail BS.

This focus on individualism means that the Liberal Democrats are not a party to represent the working class or the rich, but are aimed at everyone who doesn't want to divide society into simple groups and support one of them. I'm on board with that.

While the book doesn't talk about libertarianism, which superficially has this overlap with liberalism around FREEDOM, etc., it's still helped me build an unfounded pet theory. American democracy was forked from European democracy before it had fully evolved, so it's got some weirdnesses (like guns and oppressing black people, at the very least). In a similar was, ideas of liberty got forked before they'd become well-developed in Europe, so they just end up with insane individualism and FREEDOM. I'm not sure it's true, but I like the idea.

Liberal history has also upset some of my pre-existing thoughts. I'd always taken the bloodiness of communist and fascist takeovers to be symptomatic of of the horrors of totalitarianism. However, the revolutions in England and France, attempting to bring us democracy, also had horrible terror and bloodshed. Does that mean democracy also is inherently violent?

The liberal answer is that the horrifying violence comes from the elimination of the "enemies of the state". Revolutions tend to assume a particular will of the people requires action to achieve, so generally end up getting rid of people, but the ongoing terror-or-not comes from whether this remains the steady state. A liberal democracy won't do that, while totalitarianism will. The English and French revolutions were democratic, but not properly liberal. Once you have the transition to a liberal government, there should not be the violence. It also implies that non-liberal democracy is... not a great government system.

Dunt also makes the case that liberalism clashes with identity politics. Identity politics largely focuses on groups of people identifying with that group (and working towards helping that group). This clashes with treating people like individuals - it implies that anyone in that category who doesn't believe in the majority opinion of the group is a traitor, and empowers people to speak as if they represent the group even if they have no specific qualification to do so.

I suspect that the more left-leaning liberals, having more sympathy with full-on Labour-style politics that emphasise class, have more sympathy for identity politics, but I do like the idea of being critical of it. I think it's a useful tool - it's hard to deny that most black people have strong and largely similar views on racism, based on personal experience, and that in discussing racism it makes sense to centre black voices - but we have to remember it's a simplifying model that should be handled with care.

A thing I rather like about liberalism (that again isn't talked about explicitly, but is implicit in the writing) is that it's an empirical approach. Backed by doubt, rationality and seeking counters to your arguments, liberalism has evolved over time as weaknesses have been found. Liberalism has moved from laissez-faire economics to Keynesian economics as it became clear that laissez-faire causes crashes, and Keynesianism digs you out of crashes (economic depressions are liberty limiting!). It's less a philosophical argument (sorry, Hayek), it's more about what actually works.

This is in contrast to e.g. Marx claiming that communism is an historical inevitability, which it really doesn't seem to be despite a bunch of people trying to accelerate the "inevitable". Liberals don't believe liberalism is inevitable, but that a rational, tolerant government promoting equality and freedom is continual hard work.

Given I mentioned Keynes I'm going to take a quick break to fan-boy. I've been a minor fan of Keynes since reading a few economics texts. However I've moved up a couple of notches given this quote about him from the book: "the sharpest and clearest that I have ever known. When I argued with him, I felt that I took my life in my hands, and I seldom emerged without feeling something of a fool". Who said this? Bertrand Russell! If he's making Bertrand Russell feel dumb... wow. Not sure what to say.

The discussion of post-war liberal period makes the politics of the last decade all the more horrifying. Dunt explains the EU and international free trade as liberal attempts to correct for fascism and communism, and dismantling and disregarding these things is a signal that we've forgotten the lessons from World War II. They're flawed institutions, but as liberalism became something like a background assumption, the flaws became more visible than the underlying intent, and people became grumpy with the institutions.

As mentioned earlier, recent history is pretty grim, with liberalism in decline and nationalism on the rise. Despite this book being published in 2020, you can see more and more nationalist rubbish by the day. The ongoing Conservative activity of union flags everywhere and pictures of the queen are a case in hand. Sure, Conservatives tend to like these things at the best of times, but it's no accident that they're being raised right now, when so much is a mess.

In the last few paragraphs of the book, there's a call to action. Liberalism has been too hands-off. It needs to drive change, it needs to make people's lives better. It needs to go beyond technocratically building institutions like the EU and WTO, to directly improve the lives of the poorest and most under-privileged, which would be both the best actual improvement in liberty for humankind, and provide a counter to the dangerous attractions of nationalism. I find the idea compelling.

Is the book any good? I think so. A little long and not authoritative, maybe, but if I had a friend whose politics I'd want to influence, I'd chuck them this book. If it doesn't convince them, then at least I get to hear their counter-arguments!

Posted 2021-07-04.


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 previously 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. An 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.