Book Review – The Biggest Estate On Earth

I haven’t written a review here for ages, but I thought I’d write about this book to get some of my thoughts down about it. I just finished reading it during our holiday in New Zealand, and the contrast between a neighbouring country with a relatively recent human occupation (< 1000 yrs) and that of Australia was made even more stark through reading this book. For example, we visited Zealandia, a wildlife/eco-sanctuary which aims to provide a look at what New Zealand would have looked like before human habitation. ┬áIn Australia, where humans have been here for tens of thousands of years, what would such a project even mean?

The Biggest Estate on Earth

A historical analysis of the extent people managed the Australian landscape prior to European contact

The key controversy about this book is mentioned by Bill Gammage in his Appendix: that this is an application of the discipline of academic history to an area normally considered to be the domain of science – the Australian landscape. Accordingly, the book is dense with an overwhelming amount of source material that Gammage draws upon to support his analysis. This density made the book a bit of a chore for me to get through at times, and I maybe should have read just the first two and last two chapters, but the key insight is rewarding: that prior to European contact, people in Australia extensively managed the landscape to the extent we may even say that they “farmed” it.

As a historical text, Gammage draws upon both primary and secondary sources, but the former are extensive. Sources included writings from early explorers, surveyors, botanists, anthropologists, politicians, and farmers from across Australia, as well as paintings and maps from the time. A particularly interesting source for me was photographs of trees, which due to their multi-hundred year lifespans, are a form of documentation about what occurred in their vicinity during their life.

I found the argument repetitive, but still convincing, and am happy to believe that across Australia by 1788, people broadly shaped the landscape to suit their needs for both animal and plant food sources, as well as for large gatherings. Early Europeans to see this landscape described it over and over again as a “park”. The main tool used by indigenous peoples for shaping the land was controlled and timed burning, with fire being used on most days of the year, as people moved across their country. Since European contact and settlement, such practices have ceased and plant, animal and insect populations have also changed as a result. While it isn’t possible to return to the landscape or landcare regimes of those days, it highlights the knowledge that has been lost.

Rating by andrew: 3.5 stars

Movie Review – Moon

I recently formed a sci-fi movie club along with some other friends, where we watch a movie each month and chat about it with each other. The catch is that none of the others are based in the city that I am in, so it’s all done electronically: we stream movies from iTunes or wherever, and discuss it over email. It’s a bit different from the book club that I’m in, but still enjoyable. Kate is convinced that the real purpose of the club is to justify watching movies that none of the partners of those involved would ever want to watch. She is entitled to her theory.

But I wanted to mention one of the movies that we’ve watched that I found surprisingly enjoyable. It seems to be a film that got very little attention at the time, although it is a bit of a gem.


A well-made sci-fi mystery set on the moon

There was clearly a big budget set aside for this film. The production values are apparent from the very beginning, and yet the special effects are not gratuitous, despite being set in space. The movie is all about the story.

However, it doesn’t rush the story, and perhaps this feels a little slow at times, but also builds a sense of suspense around what is going to happen next. There is a real mystery here. The acting is also first-class, supporting the feeling of unease around the events. Even the robot character, Gerty, is well “acted”, which is a rare thing indeed.

I found it interesting how Gerty is given just three or four emoticon-type expressions based on how advanced the AI is otherwise. It is probably a fair approach to avoiding any uncanny-valley problems.

In hind-sight, this feels a lot like old-school sci-fi, of the ilk of Robert Heinlein. He was keen on Moon stories, too.

Rating by andrew: 4.0 stars

Book Review – Good to Great

I’d been aware of this book for a while, but it still seems to be available only in expensive hardback format, so I was waiting until it got cheaper. Recently I found it for $15 (still hardback) and this was enough for me to give it a go.

Good to Great

Research-based guidance for established companies to excel in their markets.

I came to this book by Jim Collins with some interest in reading about a new research-based attempt to find a winning corporate formula, but also scepticism due to the unsuccessful attempts that have come before. Perhaps the most infamous was In Search of Excellence which purported to find the recipe for excellence, but gave Atari (had to sell key assets in 1984) and Wang Labs (filed for bankruptcy in 1992) as examples of excellent corporations. Although, that book identified 43 “excellent” companies, so it’s probably not too bad for only a couple of bad apples to end up in their list.

Collins improves his odds by identifying only 11 “good to great” companies. But this is perhaps an uncharitable comparison, as his team appears to have done an extensive job in analysing these companies, and there are only 11 because only 11 companies out of the 1,435 US-based “Fortune 500” companies from 1965-1995 met their criteria. Then to identify the features that relate to being “good to great”, these had to be possessed by all “good to great” companies and lacked by all 17 close-but-not-quite-good-to-great companies also identified by the team.

The book explains the basis for these features, and is engaging and well-written. For me, the most surprising was the feature of “first who.. then what” which is basically the idea that hiring well becomes foundation for all corporate strategy, and not, say an analysis of competitors, technology, financials, or other market fundamentals. I do like this idea, despite its fuzziness, as it says that people aren’t fungible and that they can make a big difference. There are five other features, making six in all, but none were as counter-intuitive as this one. In any case, I will now be paying attention to these features in my workplace and future employers.

However, I can’t bring myself to adopt them as fundamental tenets since despite the rigorous research, the conclusions remain essentially unproven. From my point of view, there are three weaknesses in the research: the set of “good to great” companies is arbitrary, the set is small, and the conclusions are untested.

Taking the first problem, “good to great” companies were defined as having a transition to “great” performance of at least three times the general market (from a point of transition). If, instead of three times, it had been five times or even two times, a different set of companies would’ve been found. Since the features needed to be possessed by all “good to great” companies, a different set would’ve produced a different set of features, e.g. potentially larger or smaller. Hence, perhaps the features found are sufficient for a good-to-great transition but some weren’t actually necessary.

The problem of a small sample is tackled in the book, referencing “two leading professors” who think the sample of 11 companies wasn’t small. Unfortunately, this is not convincing. For example, one professor says that the 11 companies wasn’t a sample as it was 100% of companies that met the criteria – although I would respond that the book promises that these principles are universal, so there will be more such companies in the US-market in the future, and they should also apply to non-US-based companies, hence the 11 companies don’t represent 100% of all possible “good to great” companies.

Lastly, the conclusions are untested. The research team could’ve, say, looked for a couple of companies outside the US that met their “good to great” criteria and then checked that those companies possessed all of the six features. Except they didn’t. The only companies examined as part of the study were those that informed the conclusion. The use of comparison companies gives me a level of faith in the conclusions, but these can’t be validly re-used in testing that conclusion. So, really the conclusion remains a hypothesis for now.

My grumblings notwithstanding, I was impressed with the analysis in the book and the methodology that used comparison companies to filter out features that were shared by both the “good to great” companies and also those that didn’t perform so well. It has shifted my thinking about what a successful business can look like.

Rating by andrew: 3.5 stars

Movie Review – Date Night

As a married couple with kids, we are familiar with the concept of date nights. Setting aside time where we do something nice together is a good idea. And since we’re Tina Fey fans, it seemed only natural for our date night the other week to involve watching Date Night. Yeah, I know it’s hardly original, but it seemed apt.

Date Night

If you know the subject, you’ll know the truth of the material

It’s got Tina Fey and Steve Carrell, both skilled in the art of ad-libbing and quirky comedy. They’re playing a married couple with precious little time left in their lives for each other, shocked at the deteriorating relationships of some close friends, and looking to add some spark again. And then they get a lot more spark than they bargained for, with mad-cap capers ensuring.

I found the whole thing to be enormous fun. The plot and action sequences are not particularly strong elements of the film, but the two lead protagonists are wonderful characters and the dialogue (both written and ad-libbed) is funny. It’s funny because it’s true.

Rating by andrew: 4.0 stars

Book Review – Steve Jobs

I borrowed this book from a friend in Perth back around Christmas-time last year, lugged it back to Melbourne, and I’ve been reading it on and off since then. I guess this shows it isn’t “un-put-down-able” but it was definitely compelling enough that I came back to it again and again, wanting to finish it. For example, I blogged about one of the many parts I found interesting previously. Having finished it now, I can say it was definitely worth it.

Steve Jobs

Insightful biography, leadership text and history of computing

I read the actual, physical hard-cover form of the book, which in retrospect was ironic since Steve Jobs made available the means to easily read the e-book form of his book on the iPad 2 that I own. The book – at 1125g – weighs-in at about twice that of the iPad 2, and hence I couldn’t easily read it during my usual work commute. This would normally be a severe impediment to reading, but the book was fascinating, insightful and a surprisingly easy read. However, I would recommend the e-book edition for those that have appropriate devices.

I’ve read a few biographies, and this stands-out as the one that I’ve come away from with the greatest sense of understanding the subject. Isaacson is a good researcher and writer and has produced a book that seems to effortlessly roll together a biography, a business leadership text and a history of the computing revolution that came out of Silicon Valley. On the one hand, it was eye-opening how badly Steve Jobs treated people – colleagues, employees, family – but there were many things that I took out as lessons for how technology products evolve and why they succeed.

Yet there is a problem in extracting such lessons from the life of Jobs. As Isaacson has commented elsewhere, Jobs’ “personality was integral to his way of doing business”. There is a similar problem in divorcing the value of his products from his own value system. Either one can accept that his success and his faults are inseparable, Apple Inc could never have been achieved by anyone else, and hence the delightful products are the result of bad treatment of amazing people. Or one can extract out the key lessons of his life, another person could achieve similar greatness in following them without treating others as roughly, similarly inspiring products could be created through other means, and hence Jobs’ treatment of people is inexcusable.

The book also touches on the lives of John Lasseter and Jonathan Ive, who are potentially the prime creative forces at Pixar and Apple, respectively, although somewhat overshadowed by Jobs in their day. Both are creative visionaries and leaders, yet neither seem to possess Jobs’ inter-personal flaws. This suggests that the latter view above is more likely. However, I eagerly await a similarly in-depth biography of Lasseter or Ive.

Rating by andrew: 4.5 stars

Book Review – The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

This month I’ve already read the book club book. The actual book club get-together is still almost two weeks away, so I’m actually in some danger of forgetting all about it by then. I seem to have a talent for forgetting the details of a book, which can come in handy, since it justifies me keeping a copy of good books on my book-shelf – I know I can enjoy them all over again.

But this book was one that I nominated, so I really should try to remember something about it for the discussion. Hence, I’m going to note my thoughts down here, in easy-to-reference form.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

A personal tale masquerading as an ethics tale hidden inside a science tale

When this book was selected for book club, it was partly on the basis that it had over 1,000 reviews on with an average score of 4.5 out of 5. I think this is a fair rating – there is something in this book for everyone.

The author, Rebecca Skloot, takes us through her journey of discovery regarding the family and story behind the “HeLa” line of cells – cells still alive today and involved in important science. Her close connection to the family becomes an important part of the tale, both because it allows her to access the detailed history of the family but also because it provides a very human face for the abstract cells.

The absence of such a human face is part of the context for so many of the ethical issues that occur in the history of the cell line. Examples of racism, exploitation of the poor, the law trailing scientific advances, lack of informed consent, lack of compensation, industry profiting from volunteers, scientific denial, and many others. The book is long-ish and I feel like I should’ve taken notes of these issues so that I could remember them to discuss later.

The tale is at times amazing, horrific, uplifting and sad. For me, one of the saddest aspects was how disadvantaged the family has been. Their ancestors were exploited as part of slavery on a tobacco plantation and they never seem to have escaped the legacy of that. Although, the book itself promises to assist, so perhaps the family will have a happier future than their past.

Rating by andrew: 4.5 stars

Book Review – The Daughter of Time

This month’s book club had us read a book I first read ages ago, and it was a real pleasure to re-read and find that I still liked it. In fact, I unsuccessfully nominated it as a book club book ages ago (another one of my nominations was selected that month instead), and it was also nice to find that it worked well for book club discussion.

The Daughter of Time

A story about history stories that hopes to right a historical wrong

Josephine Tey – the pen-name of Phys Ed teacher turned author Elizabeth Mackintosh – is apparently know for her not-to-formula mystery writing. This is the case here, where the detective has to solve the mystery while stuck in a hospital bed, and the mystery dates back 500 years. However, the bed-bound-detective is not the only quirky character, with a cast of contemporary and historical figures parading through the story. Together with the joyous writing itself, I found the book a treat to read.

One down-side is that it was written for an English school-system educated audience from the 1950s, and assumes that you have a fair grasp of royal lineage and history. If you consider War of the Roses to have been an average movie, then you may need (like I) to just let the references to multiple Edwards, Edmunds and Elizabeths just flow past and be confident that it will all come together in the end.

While the book tries to overturn the popular account of one of history’s most infamous kings, it also takes some jabs at history in general. The author clearly has felt frustrated by both historical accounts and historical fiction, as well as the annoying tendency for a good story to survive better than the facts.

Rating by andrew: 4.0 stars

Book Review – REWORK

I came across a post recommending this book on the go-to site for geeky current affairs – Hacker News. Unusually for me, I ordered it on the strength of that.


A new employee guide at 37 Signals

This is the type of book that can probably be read in 1/2 hr, but I read it in stops and starts on the train to/from work. It’s a collection of 1 or 2 page write-ups on business topics, distilling the wisdom of Jason Fried and David Hansson from web productivity company 37 Signals.

While it aims to offer practical advice on how to work more effectively, I found that most of the advice didn’t make sense in the context of my job, and I now struggle to remember any of the advice a couple of months after having read it. It has resulted in no improvement to my work routine, despite my initial interest in the promise from the front cover to “change the way you work forever.”

On the other hand, I could see how it might be useful to a reader who is running or would like to run a small business (e.g. two themes are competitors and damage control). However, I can also see how it would be most useful to Fried and Hansson in normalising their preferred work culture within their own business. I would not be surprised if every new employee was given a copy of this book on their first day at 37 Signals.

Rating by andrew: 2.5 stars

Book Review – New York Trilogy

It was during hellish holiday, I was sleep-deprived, and yet there I was in a book store and there’s a certain comfort that comes from having a new book to read. On a “recommended by staff” shelf I found an interesting looking title with terms like “international bestselling”, “dazzling”, “gripping” and “genius” on the cover. I cheerfully left the book store with the book in tow.

It was perhaps the most disappointing book I’ve ever read.

The New York Trilogy

Absurdist and boring

I am not a stranger to the mystery/detective genre, having read most Agatha Christie novels, all of Sherlock Holmes, and in terms of more modern fare, even some Peter Temple and Stieg Larsson. However, while Paul Auster tells three different stories in this collection with a detective protagonist, I admit that none are like any I’ve read before.

I was primed to enjoy them, and I did even for a few pages, but as the pages turned into chapters, I found myself finding more and more excuses to put it down, and then only with reluctance picking it up again. While I didn’t like any of the main characters, I was willing to stick it out, because it held the promise of being good. Perhaps it was only when I reached the end that I’d discover why it was meant to be a work of genius?

Perhaps it was too genius for me. Although, if you’re the sort of person that enjoys stories where different characters have the same name, the author’s name is used in the story, or characters are named in a theme, then this is probably your sort of genius. It was clear that it was meant to be clever, but for me it never translated into enjoyable.

Finally, I felt a bit like one of the characters from the book myself, and wanting to destroy the pages so that no-one else would ever have to read them. I think I’ll just drop it into a charity bin instead. Someone else may want to use it to prop open a door, or something.

Rating by andrew: 1.5 stars

Children’s Music is Catchy

I don’t get to listen to music as much these days. When I was at school, I would have favourite CDs on repeat, studying or reading. However, perhaps I am beginning to re-live my youth, as I am starting to put CDs on repeat again, although it’s not exactly my idea.

The CDs are full of nursery rhymes or are by kids’ TV presenters. While these children’s CDs have simple melodies and the lyrics are easy to understand, they have an unfortunate tendency to get stuck in my brain for hours at a time. But I was pleasantly surprised by one CD we bought; it is a cut above the others.

Songs to make you smile

Surprisingly complex and enjoyable songs that will appeal to children

You may well scoff, but I am actually writing a review of a children’s album. Out of all of the various CDs we have to entertain our kids, this one is my favourite. So, what if it is songs by Justine Clarke, an ex-Home and Away actor and, more recently, Playschool presenter? The musical team behind her, primarily Peter Dasent and Arthur Baysting, have pulled off a wonder – a children’s album that does’t drive me out of my mind. In fact, I find myself humming or singing along.

The different songs on the album are from a variety of styles, with interesting instrumental lines and rhymes. The stand-out songs for me are the soft and sad Why Does The Baby Cry? and vaguely educational but fun Dinosaur Roar.

While bands like The Wiggles have mindlessly simple songs that are good for basic dancing, they don’t play well on repeat. It’s a relief (and lucky) to find music for children that I can also listen to.

Rating by andrew: 4.0 stars

Other suggestions for good children’s music will be gratefully accepted!