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.  In 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
***1/2

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
***1/2

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
****1/2

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 Amazon.com 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
****1/2

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.

REWORK

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
**1/2

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
*1/2

Old books new looks

I read my first proper e-book 17 years ago. It was 1994, and I enthusiastically devoured Bruce Sterling‘s (free!) digital release of The Hacker Crackdown, scrolling through it line-by-line on a  small CRT display. At the modem speeds of the day, it took around 7 mins to download it, and it must’ve taken me a week to read it.

While it was common to write long form content – books, essays, dissertations, and the like – on computers, it is interesting how uncommon it was (for anyone but the author) to read such content on computers. Essentially, computers were a write-only medium when it came to books.

At the time, I knew it was a bit strange to read a whole book this way, but it was a great experience. The book was about the computer culture of the time, and so it was appropriate to be reading it hunched over a computer. However, the process of discovering that a book exists, getting it, and then beginning to read it – all within half an hour – was very satisfying.

Given how long ago I started to read e-books, I’m a little late to the party regarding the modern generation of them. This has now been rectified.

I had to buy our book-club book as an e-book through the Kindle app on our iPad. Not only was it available in time for us to read it compared with buying it for real or borrowing it from the library (it took much less than 7 minutes to download), but it was also:

  • cheaper (less than half the price),
  • easier to share between Kate and myself (no risk of losing multiple book-marks),
  • easier to read in bed (self-illuminating, so less distracting to the other person), and
  • took up none of the scarce space on our bookshelves (given that the book turned out to be not-very-good).

And with the latest book-club book, Bill Bryson’s At Home, I found myself wishing it was an e-book rather than hard-cover. While it would’ve been a lot lighter (the iPad 2 is 600g versus the book at 900g), it was more that this book mentions all sorts of interesting things in passing that made me want to look into them in more detail before continuing. It would’ve been much more convenient to jump straight to a web browser as I read about them, rather than having to put the book down and find an Internet-connected device in order to indulge my curiosity.

All the various advantages that e-readers and tablets have over their physical book counterparts remind me of the advantages that digital music players had over CDs, cassettes and records. However, as I’ve written about before, the digital music player succeeded when it was able to offer the proposition of carrying all one’s music, but e-readers cannot yet offer this.

Apple’s iPod, supported three sources for acquiring music: (i) importing music from my CDs, (ii) file sharing networks (essentially, everyone else’s CDs), and (iii) purchase of new music from an online shop (iTunes Music Store). For e-books on my iPad, it’s not easy to access anything like the first two sources, while there are at several online shops able to provide new reading material. As a result, the iPad (or any other e-reader) doesn’t really offer any way for me to take my book library with me wherever I go.

Although, that would be pretty amazing, it’s honestly not that compelling. I could go back and re-read any book whenever I want, but that’s not actually something I feel I’m missing. I could search across all my non-fiction books whenever I needed to look something up, but really I just use the Internet for that sort of thing.

The conclusion may be that books aren’t enough like music. The experience of consuming music – whether old media or new digital – is sufficiently similar that the way for technology to offer something more is to, literally, provide more of it – thousands of pieces of music. However, for books, the new digital experience of books may end up being a very different thing to the books of old.

Already, there are books with illustrations that obey gravity and can be interacted with,  books that are like a hybrid of a documentary and allow you to dig deep as you like into the detail, and we’ve only just started. If these are the sort of books that I’m going to have on my iPad in future, why would I want to be putting my old-school book collection on there instead? I can also imagine publishers seeing the chance to get people to re-purchase favourite books, done with all the extras for tablets, in the same way that people re-purchased their VHS collection when they got a DVD player.

So, while my book-club e-book experience wasn’t materially different to the one I had 17 years ago, we are going through a re-imagining of the digital book itself. If it took journalists 40 years from the first email in 1971 to officially decide to drop the hyphen from “e-mail”, then the fact that we still commonly have a hyphen in “e-book” suggests it’s not a mature concept yet, despite the progress of a mere 17 years.

There’s been a lot of death

1994,
We were narrowly missed by a great big meteor.
Didn’t really make front page news.
We’re too busy cooking crumpets, and wearing out shoes.

– ‘Meteor‘, Box Set, Tripod.

Sometimes it’s interesting to look through your partner’s book collection. Aside from the books that I have absolutely no interest in (I’m looking at you Chick Lit), there are quite a few that I mean to read one day. And that day came for a science book with an interesting title.

A Short History of Planet Earth

A potted history of major geological events in the history of the Earth.

Ian Plimer is the professor of mining geology at the University of Adelaide, so he knows his geology, and this book from 2001 promises to take the layman through a journey of the Earth’s geological history. The subject matter covered is very interesting, although it is a more difficult read than it might have been.

The book really opened my eyes to the fact that much of the planet’s life has been repeatedly wiped out over the years. Whether by giant meteors from space, collapsing volcanic mountains, breaches in ice dams, or a host of other causes, the continued existence of a species of Earth-based organism is precarious indeed. When we come across a species that’s a relic of a previous age, such as a stromatolite, it’s almost a miraculous thing.

However, accessing this interesting story is made difficult by a few features of the text. While pitched at a non-technical reader, Plimer can’t help using technical terms that he doesn’t define anywhere. Also, despite the book being arranged chronologically by chapter, there is a tendency to leap around between topics and timeframes within chapters or even on the same page. I found these diversions, while often interesting, interrupted the flow, and would’ve been better placed in their own side box, or even omitted. There was almost a sense that a less-than-thorough editing job had been done.

Towards the end of the book, Plimer begins to reveal his negative views towards human-induced climate change. These seemed a little out-of-place in a book of this nature, but the book does have other personal touches, such as his thoughts on ancient surfing breaks. Perhaps it adds a little colour at the expense of academic neutrality.

In all, I was pleased to have read it (and learned a new perspective on our planet’s evolution), but less pleased with the effort required to make it through to the end.

Rating by andrew: 2.5 stars
**1/2

Child brutality in black and white

This month’s book-club book is again a work of post-apocalyptic fiction. Perhaps we have a preference for stories about screwed-up worlds. I don’t know what that says about us.

The Hunger Games

Teenage girl gladiator fights for family in deadly reality TV show

This novel by Suzanne Collins is a light read on a dark subject. The Hunger Games is a reality TV show where randomly chosen youngsters battle each other for glory and to placate the state. How to write a tasteful story about children killing each other? Collins tries to walk a fine line between glorifying the violence and keeping the moral perspective. I’m not sure she always does it successfully, but she doesn’t stray too far into unhealthy territory.

I found it difficult to classify the book. It has fate handing down violence for the amusement of others, as in Gladiator. It has children trying to out-game others, as in Enders Game. And it also has the post-apocalyptic game show element of The Running Man. And it has a female lead. So, if you can imagine all that, then it’s something like the feel of this book.

While I found the book itself enjoyable, especially towards the end, I had trouble immersing myself in the story. Perhaps because it focussed more on the characters’ predicament than the characters themselves, or because the protagonist Katniss is so analytical herself, or maybe because of the gruesome game, I didn’t find myself empathising with the characters.

Rating by andrew: 3.0 stars
***