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

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

Personal and environmental audio – hear hear!

Just before Christmas, a friend brought me a new pair of headphones back from the US. I still haven’t quite decided yet whether they are the future of personal audio or just a step in the right direction, but I am finding them a bit of a revelation.

The headphones are the AfterShokz Sportz M2, which are relatively cheap, bone conduction headphones. Bone conduction means that instead of the headphones sending sound into your ear canal (like in-ear or full size headphones), they sit against the bones of your skull and send vibrations along them to your inner ear. The main advantage is that while listening to audio from these headphones, you can still hear all the environmental sound around you. The main disadvantage is that, of course, you can still hear all the environmental sound around you.

Clearly, this is not desirable for an audiophile. Obviously, you don’t get these sorts of headphones for their audio quality, and while I find them perfectly decent for listening to music or podcasts, the bass is not as good as typical headphones either. That said, if I want to hear the sound better, I can pop a finger in my ear to block out external noise. Sometimes I use the headphones for telephone calls on my mobile when traveling on the tram, and it probably looks a little odd to the other travelers that I am wearing headphones and putting my finger to my ear, but it is very effective.

For the first week or so that I was wearing them, I had strange sensations in my head, very much like when I first get new frames for my glasses. They push on my head in a way that I’m not used to, and it takes a little bit to get used to. The fact that I can hear music playing in my “ears” and yet hear everything around me was also initially a bit surreal – a bit like I was in a movie with a soundtrack – but the strangeness here diminished very quickly and now it is just a delight.

While they are marketed to cyclists or people who need to be able to hear environmental sound for safety reason (like, well, pedestrians crossing roads, so almost everyone I guess), it’s not the safety angle that really enthuses me. I am delighted by being able to fully participate in the world around me while concurrently having access to digital audio. When the announcer at a train station explains that a train is going to be cancelled, I still hear it. When a barista calls out that my coffee is ready, I still hear it. When my wife asks me a question while I’m doing something on the computer, I still hear it.

A couple of years ago, I yearned for this sort of experience:

For example, if I want to watch a TV program on my laptop, while my wife watches some video on the iPod on the couch next to me, we are going to interfere with each other, making it difficult for either of us to listen to our shows.

Being able to engage with people in my physical environment and yet access audio content without interfering with others is very liberating. I had hoped that highly directional speakers were the solution, but bone conduction headphones are a possible alternative.

Initially I had tried headphones that sat in only one ear, leaving the other one free. They were also very light and comfortable. One issue was that these were Bluetooth headphones and had trouble staying paired with several of the devices I had. However, and more importantly, I looked a bit like a real estate agent when I wore them, and was extremely self-conscious. Even trying to go overboard and wear them constantly for a month wasn’t enough to rid me of the sense of embarrassment I felt. Additionally, others would make a similar association and always seemed to assume that I must be on a phone call. If I did interact with others, I always had to explain first that I wasn’t on a call. What should’ve been a highly convenient solution turned out to be quite inconvenient.

The AfterShokz have none of these issues. I did try coupling them with a Bluetooth adaptor, but it had similar Bluetooth pairing issues. I see that AfterShokz have since released headphones with Bluetooth built in, but I haven’t tested these.

One potential new issue with the AfterShokz that I should discuss relates to the ability for others to hear what I’m listening to – this had been mentioned by some other online reviewers. While at higher volumes, others can hear sounds coming from the headphones (although this is not unique to AfterShokz’ headphones), at lower volumes it is actually very private. In any case, I’ve got a niggling sense of a higher risk of damage to my inner ear from listening to music at higher volumes: bone conduction headphones surely need to send sound-waves at higher energy levels than normal headphones because the signal probably attenuates more through bone than through air, and this is coupled with the fact that it needs to be operated at higher levels in order to be heard over background noise that would be otherwise blocked out by normal headphones. So, I try to set it at as low a volume as I can get away with, and block my ear with my finger if I need to hear better. In quiet environments, it’s not an issue.

Perhaps I am worrying about something that isn’t a problem, since I note that some medical professionals who specialise in hearing loss are advocating them. For that matter, the local group that specialises in vision loss is also promoting them. Although, I guess the long term effects of this technology are still unclear.

In any case, I find using this technology to be quite wonderful. I feel that I’ve finally found stereo headphones that aren’t anti-social. I hope if you have the chance to try it, you will also agree.

Windows 8 – worth the w8?

Our old laptop entered its death spiral a few months ago, but instead of replacing it immediately, we borrowed a stand-in laptop from a kind friend and decided to wait for the slew of Windows 8 compatible laptops that we expected to come in November. Not only would waiting mean that the machines available then be more “future proof”, and cheaper due to competition from other Windows 8 laptops, but we’d be able to pick up (I hoped) a decently-priced touch screen laptop.

Having had the iPad for a couple of years now, and experienced using it with a Bluetooth keyboard, I was completely sold on the idea of a keyboard-enabled device with a touch-screen. The combination of decent keyboard to type with and pleasant touch-based interface is a winner. It also doesn’t hurt that you double the screen real estate by moving from a soft keyboard to a hard keyboard.

So, November came, I put the plan into action, and bought a Sony VAIO E-Series touch laptop for a little over $1,000. It runs a standard Intel i5 processor and comes with a 750 GB hard disk drive. And of course, it had Windows 8.

This post is about sharing my thoughts on Windows 8, having used it now for almost two months. Initially, I was pretty excited with it, but I have since discovered some limitations, so I feel I have a reasonably balanced view of it now.

Major Changes

There are two really big changes that I’ve encountered, coming from Windows 7 up to Windows 8. Many of the other changes stem from these. The changes I’m referring to are: (i) you can now touch the screen to do things, and (ii) the Start Menu has become a Start Screen.

Realistically, Microsoft could’ve introduced native touch screen support in earlier versions of Windows. For example, HP has had this capability on their TouchSmart series of machines. However, it’s not enough for the operating system to be designed around touch if none of the applications are, since controls designed for mouse-based interaction are typically too small to easily manipulate using fingers. So, to introduce touch required Microsoft to push their entire developer community to redesign their applications, and this is logically done together with a major new operating system release.

This may have also spurred Microsoft to redesign their Start Menu. A feature of Windows since Windows 95, it was really a bit too compact for touch and required multiple clicks to navigate which becomes annoying with touch. They could’ve just made the Start Menu bigger and supported scrolling rather than clicking, but instead they took the pretty risky decision to replace the menu with an entirely new screen with a different user interface and its very own app store. Perhaps this understates the level of change. It’s almost as if they decided to replace the humble Start Menu with the entirety of Windows Phone 7.

The Touch Experience

I really love being able to touch the screen. Yesterday I used another laptop without touch, and kept having to pull myself back from touching its screen. It’s not that I use touch at every opportunity: it’s just one way I interact with the interface, along with the keyboard, trackpad and mouse. Some things are best done with a mouse, sometimes the keyboard is best, and some of the time touch is best. This is why I know that eventually touch-screen laptops will become common as those with trackpads.

Windows 8 enables this, but it’s not 100% there yet. Let me tell you about some of the gaps.

When you use touch to control the interface, the mouse pointer disappears. However, since the mouse pointer also used to indicate that the operating system is doing something (a little circular animation appears on it, although in previous versions of Windows it was a sand-timer), having the pointer disappear also leaves me in the dark as to whether that icon I just touched is really launching the program I wanted or whether I was a few pixels out and should really touch it again. Unsurprisingly, sometimes I launch things multiple times. This can get annoying.

It’s not just when launching programs, but any time I try to take an action where there may be a delay. Normally applications rely on the mouse pointer to communicate activity back to the users, so they don’t provide any other indication that things are happening (web browsers are a significant exception). Such applications will need to be rewritten to have an application specific activity indication. Or Microsoft will need to fix this, perhaps in Windows 9.

This tells me that the touch experience was not foremost in the mind of the designers of Window 8. On the contrary, it seems more to be designed around a “keyboard first” principle. Power users are given a range of handy key combinations, and it appears that some of these have been turned into useful gestures, but the whole touch thing isn’t totally elegant.

I find one of the handiest key combinations to be alt-tab, allowing me to quickly switch between applications/windows without having to use the mouse. As this is so useful, this has been converted to a touch gesture: place finger on the left-side bevel outside the screen, swipe to the right onto the screen, then without lifting your finger swipe back to the left. As well as being a clumsy gesture, it doesn’t actually list all the applications since all desktop applications are grouped together.

Another thing is the on-screen “Touch Keyboard”. Despite it being completely unnecessary because this machine is a laptop, ie. it has a keyboard, the Touch Keyboard keeps popping up. It slides up onto the screen when I am logging in, when I’m using Google Chrome, and at other random times. As soon as I touch a key on the real keyboard, the on-screen Touch Keyboard slides away, but I can’t prevent it appearing in the first place. Unchecking the Touch Keyboard Toolbar in the Task Bar properties is a temporary fix, but this resets after rebooting.

Apps and the Start Screen

Despite the Start Screen having the old Start Menu as its heritage, there are two types of application you can start from the Start Screen: (i) Windows desktop applications that we’re all familiar with, and (ii) “apps”. These apps can appear as “live tiles” on the start screen (showing a snippet of content from the full application), a full-screen application with a new touch-centric user interface, or a version of that full-screen application but adapted to fit just a fraction of the screen to allow multiple apps to be on the screen at the same time (not every app necessarily supports this though).  These two types of application live in different worlds.

To get new apps, most users will need to use the Windows Store app to discover and download them. Using the Windows Store is like using Apple iTunes or Google Play, and a Windows Live account needs to be set up with Microsoft before you can download anything, even free apps. This was a pain, since I’d set up one of the computer accounts as a local account for our 4 year old and I didn’t want to set up a Windows Live account for them. Another aspect to apps is that they are associated only with one user. Desktop applications can be installed system-wide for anyone to use, but not these apps. So, it also meant that I couldn’t install apps from the Windows Store under my log-in for my 4 year old to use.

This is not a problem on our iPad, where there is no concept of multiple accounts, so I can easily download apps from the Apple App Store and then my 4 year old can get to them. I guess she’s just going to have to stick to desktop applications for now.

There are a range of built-in apps that are available from the Start Screen, eg. Photos, Music, Video. These are similar to Windows Photo Viewer or Windows Media Player, except they are much simpler and have fewer features, so you might be inclined to just ignore them. Unfortunately, they are the default applications assigned to a large variety of file types. I’ve had to go into the Control Panel and change the defaults back to what they’ve been in previous versions of Windows so that I can actually get things done.

I have downloaded a few useful apps from the Windows Store, such as Skype, a couple of games, and a good internet banking app. However, there are strange omissions, such as no official Facebook or Twitter apps, no iView app, and no YouTube app. Given that Microsoft released their operating systems to developers a long time before they made the final version public for sale, it tells me that it wasn’t for lack of opportunity: these major developers have had absolutely no interest in making their services available as apps on Windows 8.

Developers have generally been pretty slow at updating their desktop applications for Windows 8, also. For example, iTunes 11 was the first version of iTunes that officially supported Windows 8 and it came out well after the public version had shipped (let alone when the original developer versions of Windows 8 were available). Google’s Picasa still doesn’t officially support Windows 8.

Concluding Remarks

Windows 8 is a big change from Windows 7, and users are going to go through a learning curve. However, the rapid uptake of Apple iPads by Windows users has shown that they’re quite happy to learn a completely different interface if there’s enough value in it.

For me, the experience of doing tasks on a Windows 8 touch-screen laptop is better than doing them on an iPad. For example, the freedom of using a powerful and modern web browser like Chrome that also has Adobe Flash support means I can get to all the content on the Internet that I’d ever want to visit – there’s little risk that I’ll come across a site that won’t load or for some reason corrupts my form data when I hit submit – and yet I can tap and swipe to my heart’s content so it is a pleasure to browse. When the experience falls down, it is usually when doing things that can’t be done on an iPad, eg. managing multiple accounts, using desktop applications, or multi-tasking.

Yet it is glaringly obvious that the experience must improve. Both application developers and Microsoft will need to update their software to work properly in this brave new touch-enabled world of Windows. Still, what’s available right now is both fun and useful (notwithstanding several annoyances) and gives me confidence that this world is achievable.

That said, if I didn’t have a touch screen laptop, I’d stay away from Windows 8, and if I didn’t have a high pain threshold when it comes to tinkering with my PC (or have someone in my household like this), I’d hold off on Windows 8 until there was more widespread application support, but for me it was worth the wait.

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