Showing posts with label Non-fiction. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Non-fiction. Show all posts

08 June 2014

Gironimo!: Riding the Very Terrible 1914 Tour of Italy by Tim Moore [2014]

This is a travel book describing Tim Moore's attempt to cycle the course of the Giro d'Italia of 1914, using a historically accurate bike. I picked it up because I heard pieces of it on Radio 4's book of the week and I had read some of the author's other books.  

It's an insubstantial book and the slightly arch authorial voice can be grating at times. Also, the technical aspects of assembling the bicycle appeal to a certain character trait which is under-developed with me. The main point that stays with me is the brutality of the 1914 Giro. Moore makes the point that the cyclists taking part were predominantly country boys fleeing poverty (and famine) in pre-industrialized rural Italy. As a result, they were prepared to put up with a level of hardship for relatively little reward that seems astonishing today.
The average stage length was 395 KM.  Because some of the stages took 20 hours to complete, they started at midnight so as to ensure an early evening finish the following day. Only 8 riders finished the race, from 81 who started. Moore covers the course at a significantly slower pace, and the modern travelogue is interspersed with details of the original race. There is a lot of historical cycling information here which did not really grab me. However, I am glad I read it.
As an aside, the author gives an interesting insight into the social stratification of immigrants in Italy by observing the concentric rings of prostitutes that circle Italian cities as he approaches them. These are (in ascending order of price): African, Old Eastern Europeans, Young Eastern Europeans.  An emergent order of sex workers.

25 May 2014

The Frackers: The Outrageous Inside Story of the New Billionaire Wildcatters by Gregory Zuckerman [2013]

I picked this up because I heard the author being interviewed on a podcast and I'm interested in US energy independence, which would be globally transformative. 

The book is a history of how independent companies in the US developed and commercialised hydraulic fracturing (fracking) to extract natural gas and oil from rock and in particular shale. The narrative is driven by colourful larger-than-life characters. This is compelling but unsurprising (a quiet and reserved oilman with a passion for the poetry of George Herbert - now that would be truly fascinating...). In fact the mechanics of fracking and the development of the process is interesting enough that I thought that the focus on the founders was not necessary.
Key points that I found interesting:

1    A uniquely American approach to oil exploration and extraction. What's remarkable to this European reader is how little state intervention there appears to be in these new mining techniques. The book makes the point several times that in the USA, citizens own the mining rights associated with their land and have the liberty to do what they want with it, including leasing it to mining companies. At a broader level, I am increasingly drawn to the argument that the absence of excessive governmental regulation is a fundamental driver of economic development. 

2    The importance of real estate acquisition in driving value at publicly-traded fracking firms. Some of the companies profiled in the book (notably Chesapeake Energy) borrow billions in order to acquire hundreds of thousands of square miles of land.  The present value is all about anticipated revenue streams, so it is not necessary to actually work the plots to push up the share price. This almost suggests to me that Chesapeake could do as well as a pure real estate company. As a counter to this, the way that the market has developed is that leasing is on a 'use it or lose it' basis - i.e. the company needs to start drilling within a certain time period or loses the concession.  This leads to a weird data point - Mark Rowland of Chesapeake states in 2010 when gas prices are low and that "at least half and probably two-thirds or three quarters of our gas drilling is what I would call involuntary". 

3    The sensitivity of the industry (particularly the publicly-traded companies) to the market price of energy. It's an obvious point but extracting each unit of gas or oil from a particular field carries a cost (e.g. a cost per barrel in the case of oil). So mining in that area will only be profitable so long as the market price of the energy allows for a profit. What the book makes clear is that the market price changes rapidly, but that tooling up mines to commence extraction takes a lot longer. This is why companies have to landbank. Externally-driven volatility also means that the difference in value of these companies (and therefore their perceived health) will fluctuate wildly without necessarily reflecting the underlying value of the business. I think there is a deeper point here that I have yet to work out.

4    Co-investment by founders.  I had not realized that it used to be market for founders to purchase individual stakes in wells alongside their companies (even after they went public), and to take a personal share of the profits on each. 

The argument in favour of this sort of arrangement is that co-investing by management aligns their interest with the investors. I would counter this as follows: (i) this is only the case if management are obliged to participate in every deal (and is arguably the reverse if they are allowed to cherry-pick deals); and (ii) in the case of Aubrey McClendon of Chesapeake, his investments were funded by an ad hoc $75 million bonus paid by the company, and by private loans provided by Chesapeake's lenders. Which at the least is a conflict of interests and at the most seems a little like the casino giving a gambler his stake and allowing him to keep the winnings. This sort of private co-investment right that I used to see private equity general partners (the fund managers) try to negotiate into their partnership agreements and I always thought it strange; it seems even more so when dealing with public companies with retail investors. 

This is a really interesting book which ends with a brief discussion of the global consequences of an energy-independent USA. The author makes the point that increased use of natural gas derived from fracking has led to a diminishing use of dirty coal in the USA, although I probably need to read something from the environmentalist perspective to get a balancing view on the beneficial impact of fracking. I appreciate that there are many opposing views.

18 May 2014

The Long Run by Mishka Shubaly [2011]

I read this as a companion piece to Finding Ultra by Rich Roll. 

It's a short (60 page) memoir about the author's transition from alcoholism and drug abuse to ultra running. It was interesting because (a) it was very well-written and (b) it's realistic in that the arc of redemption does not complete - at the end of the book the author has stopped drinking but has not stopped using prescription medication and also admits that he is not necessarily any happier than he was before. 

A thought-provoking book and a great example of the novella-length Kindle single. It also made me want to find out more about Mishka Shubaly, an intriguing and talented guy who comes across as a sort of latter day Henry Rollins.

Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt by Michael Lewis [2014]

Like almost everyone else, I think Michael Lewis is a captivating writer and I downloaded this book within a couple of days of its release.  The first thing to say is that it is a little disappointing in that it is not as compelling as The Big Short.  But this could just be the subject matter.

Key points I took away from this book:

1     The domination of high-frequency trading as a proportion of all share activity. The majority of all share purchases are not made by investors buying a long term share of the company's profits, but short term deals to arbitrage price anomalies. I don't have any sort of moral objection to this, as in itself it is not objectionable (the real problem, as Lewis identifies, is the lack of transparency - a rigged system is only really a problem if people think it's fair). What is interesting is how far removed this sort of trading is from the traditional picture of company investment that is painted by fund manager advertisements and Warren Buffet hagiographies. 

2     The overwhelming sense that finance is an insiders' game and that if you can't tell who the fool is, it's you. The idea that a retail investor can get any sort of edge in this environment is ludicrous. Although the book is about Wall Street, what Lewis actually describes does not seem like capitalism at all.

3     This is a technical point but I did wonder whether high frequency trading would actually be possible in the UK, or whether Stamp Duty payable on each deal would crush the returns, which are after all typically based on making millions of small, profitable deals, each of which would be taxed. I have not seen this argument made very strongly in the public discussions on high frequency trading.

An interesting book that will make you wary of buying anything but the cheapest index fund ever again.

The Seed Buried Deep by Jason Lewis [2013]

This is the sequel to Lewis' first book about circumnavigating the world using human power.  

Here are the things which stay with me a month after reading:

1     The audacity of the venture is still incredible.  In the first section of the book, the author continues to rollerblade across the United States with almost no money, sleeping rough most of the time and carrying everything he needs on his back.  This section feels like a tale of a Great Depression era hobo, yet the trip occurred as recently as 1996.  There are setbacks to overcome (to put it mildly) but the overwhelming surprise here is that this was possible at all - it's very liberating to read about and gives one a tremendous sense of what is possible.

2     Lewis crosses the Pacific in his pedal-powered boat Moksha in three legs, one of which is a 73 day solo voyage. What's interesting here is that even in this unimaginable stretch of solitary confinement, Lewis seems to feel less isolated than in the initial trip across the Atlantic when he had a co-pilot.  I think the reason for this is that the technology has advanced sufficiently for him to be in relatively regular contact with home and the school classes who are following him by email (this is the dawn of the internet age).  Lewis appears to view this inability to be truly alone as an obstacle to attaining the spiritual enlightenment he is seeking, which seems a challenging idea in a connected society.

A gripping tale by a modern hero possessed of awe-inspiring stubbornness.

13 May 2014

Finding Ultra by Rich Roll [2011]

This is a memoir by ultra-endurance athlete Rich Roll that I picked up because I had listened to a couple of his podcasts and found them to be compelling.  

The book is really about addiction. The first addiction is alcohol, from which Roll emerges in his early 30s.  Enthusiastic drinking at college leads to increasingly hazardous personal catastrophes in his 20s, which lead to rehabilitation. This is standard for a recovery memoir but it is well written and compelling: this section of the book would work as a standalone piece. An interesting cultural aside here is how much drink driving there is in this section of the book - not just driving when drunk, but actually driving whilst drinking, with a can of beer wedged between your legs. For some reason, this feels like a very American thing to do (like going to a drive-in). The British equivalent is probably furtive drinking on public transport.  

After spending his 30s as an unhappy lawyer, the narrative picks up when Roll gives up meat and embraces a plant-based (vegan) diet on the eve of his 40th birthday. This is a reaction to his own physical decline, which is the result of working 80 hour weeks and inhaling junk food instead of beer to unwind. The diet leads quickly to ultra-athletics and some truly gruelling endurance events. This section seems less well-written than the first half of the book, although there are some memorable descriptions of suffering throughout the Epic 5 event (5 consecutive Ironman Triathlons). 

A couple of points:

1    What comes across very clearly (and also in his podcasts) is that Roll trades one addiction for another. The alcohol, the work, the endurance events all seem to be different outlets for the same compulsive energy - different ways of scratching the same itch. Harnessing that energy for exercise is clearly better than directing it towards getting drunk or eating burgers, but the book left me wondering whether true salvation would lie in getting rid of the itch altogether. There is probably a Zen point somewhere here.

2    I was left asking the question about our ability to change: is lasting behavioural change is actually possible at all without the catalyst of some sort of trauma?  Incremental course correction would clearly be preferable to waiting until one had touched bottom, but this appears to be very difficult. There is the spectre of physical / chemical addiction lurking around some self-destructive patterns of behaviour, these are in the minority and I suspect that there is some deep-rooted psychological reason for this intransigence. I am interested in finding out more about this.

27 April 2014

Discover Your Inner Economist by Tyler Cowen [2007]

I picked this up because I heard Tyler Cowen talking about it on an old episode of Econtalk, my favourite podcast.  Cowen blogs at Marginal Revolution, which is always worth reading.

I think this was one of the first popular books on behavioural economics.  At any rate, it differentiates itself from many of the others by the fact that the author's personality very clearly informs all of the analysis.  I liked this very much, because Cowen represents the sort of intellectually curious polymathy that I consider at the zenith of the sort of broad liberal arts education I experienced.

The book contains lots of practical guidance on getting the most out of one's cultural (and culinary) life.  One of Cowen's key messages is that it is not necessary to be wealthy to be a cultural or culinary billionaire.

Becoming a cultural billionaire

There is a lot of useful guidance on getting the most out of the arts.  One of Cowen's best ideas is that we free ourselves from the artificial obligation of 'completism'.  In doing so, we give ourselves permission to put down books unfinished, to walk out of movies that bore us, and to visit selectively individual paintings in galleries.  

Becoming a culinary billionaire

Cowen finds a correlation between quality of national cuisine and income inequality - basically, the greater the income inequality, the better the culinary outcomes.  Following on from this, if you are in a country with relatively low income inequality (a country with a low gini coefficient), you will eat best in ethnic restaurants from 'high gini' countries. To support this, Cowen even prints a table showing the most favoured ethnic restaurants to visit when travelling in certain European countries:

Algerian or Tunisian
Turkish, Greek or Balkan
Pakistani or Indian
Indonesian or Surinamese
Chinese, Caribbean, Eastern European
Argentinian Steakhouse
Indian, Pakistani or Persian

I was reminded of the fact that the best Korean restaurants in London are not in the centre but in the very ordinary suburb of New Malden, which has the largest Korean population in Europe.  The rents are relatively low, which allows fabulous very ordinary-looking Korean restaurants such as Jee Cee Neh (great review here) to be sustained by local (Korean) customers.  Repeat business from informed customers together with high concentration of competitors keeps prices low and quality high.
A really good book which made me want to go and study at George Mason University, where Cowen is a professor and which seems to generate a lot of interesting ideas.

26 April 2014

The Upside of Down: Why Failing Well is the Key to Success by MeganMcArdle [2014]

I picked this up after watching the author speak about the book on the Microsoft Research visiting speakers lecture programme which has some really interesting people on it.  She was also a participant in my favourite podcast Econtalk recently.  McArdle covers most of the interesting points in her Microsoft presentation, but I am still glad I read the book because it reinforced what for me was the most interesting point she makes - namely the corrosive effect of repeated success in childhood on later life.  

McArdle's argument is that repeated early success leaves one unprepared for life.  By contrast, learning to deal with failure early - by failing at low-consequence endeavours -  ensures that one is better equipped to deal with inevitable unexpected catastrophes that will crop up over the course of an 80 year life. This flies in the face of the traditional western middle class approach to child-rearing, namely that repeated success (academic, sporting, whatever) reinforces self-esteem and provides the best platform for success as an adult.  

I saw an interesting example of this recently whilst on a ski-ing holiday with my family. Towards the end of the week, there was a mini slalom race for all the kids in the ski school.  We all stood at the nursery slope and watched our children ski down the course, one-by-one.  What was noticeable amongst the predominantly upper-middle class English parents watching the race was the heightened sense of anxiety and incredible relief when their kids made it safely through, as though the consequences of falling over would have been catastrophic. The parents' fear of the effect of 'failure' on their kids was palpable, as though the children were highly-strung racehorses.  
From McArdle's point of view - which I completely agree with - the ideal outcome for all of the children in the race would have been to fall over, realize that the consequences of failure were not terminal, and then get up and continue ski-ing down. 

This healthy attitude to failure is something that I am increasingly trying to build into the education of my own kids. It is difficult because there is a clear conflict with a natural desire to control their environment and interfere to optimize all outcomes, which could very well have the effect of shielding them from experiencing failure.  

A great and thought-provoking book.

19 April 2014

Dark Waters: True Story of the First Human-Powered Circumnavigation of the Earth by Jason Lewis [2012]

This is an incredible story.  The author Jason Lewis is an Englishman who in his 20s embarks upon an adventure to circumnavigate the world entirely under human power. This is the first in a trilogy of books about the journey. 

The project is conceived on a shoe-string and my reaction to the first part of the book was admiration at the fearlessness of Lewis and his friend Steven Smith, whose idea it was.  It starts with a drunken plan which actually germinates into a real journey, which is great. Preparation for the journey is at the other end of the spectrum from the sort of detailed, hollowing-out-toothpaste-handles-to-save-weight list-making attention to detail which usually accompanies these sort of adventures.  Instead, the pair are desperately poor and often hungover throughout the first section of the book and somehow manage to get their pedal-powered ship Moksha built and their kit together just by bullying and persuasion. 
The core of the book is about the 111 day journey pedalling the Moksha across the Atlantic and the tone changes abruptly once they set off.  The contrast between the haphazard preparation - Smith (in charge of navigation) is still learning to use the sextant a couple of days before setting off - and the enormity of the challenge and the open water in front of them is genuinely surprising.

At sea there are some breathtaking passages which had me gasping out loud - huge waves, near misses with mysterious sea creatures and other ships: it's really exciting. Contrasted with this intermittent excitement is the claustrophobia and discomfort of being trapped in what is essentially a coffin-shaped pedalo with another person for more than 3 months.  The author and his partner suffer physical deterioration (boils, saltwater chafing) which reflects the fracturing of their relationship.  

The book is very funny but it's not light - the author is a deep and sometimes prickly man, who is looking for some sort of meaning beyond the adventure. The trial of the sea journey and the repetitive nature of the work leads him to meditation and mindfulness which I'm interested to follow over the next two books. This in itself is enough to differentiate this book from a standard wry Englishman's travelogue.  I am really pleased that I picked this up and I can't wait to read the next book, which continues the adventure overland through the USA. 

14 April 2014

Sacré cordon bleu: what the French know about cooking by Michael Booth [2008]

This is another cooking related book by Michael Booth that I picked up because I enjoyed the author's culinary tour of Japan.  It's an account of the time he spent at the Cordon Bleu cooking school in Paris, learning to cook dishes from the French canon such as coq au vin.
The book is funny and well-written and I enjoyed reading it.   It comprises a series of oddly unmemorable vignettes of the author attending classes (cooking demonstrations) and attempting to replicate the meals.  This is interesting as far as it goes, and sets up some amusing scenes.  However, I was oddly unsatisfied by its lightness; what I was really interested in would have been more on the relevance of such old-fashioned cookery in France today.  

The dishes that are taught at the Cordon Bleu remain fundamental to the idea that the French have of themselves, even though the facts suggest that they don't actually eat in this way any more.  The French have embraced US fast food with greater fervour than any of their European neighbours - it's McDonald's second-biggest market - and an exploration of that tension between the reality and the self-image would have been great.
One very interesting point which stays with me is the simple explanation of why restaurant food tastes so different from food eaten at home - it is the result of huge amounts of butter and salt.  I appreciate that this is blindingly obvious, but I had never thought of it before, and I am grateful for the insight.

12 April 2014

The Almost Nearly Perfect People - The Truth about the Nordic Miracle by Michael Booth [2014]

I picked this book up because I'm very interested in Scandinavia, and I had read and enjoyed another of Michael Booth's books before.  The book has sections on Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Finland and finishes with a section on what Booth considers to be the archetypal Scandinavian country, Sweden. 

Some interesting points:

1     The Danish concept of Hygge which is sometimes translated as 'cosiness'.  In Booth's view, Danes strive for this more than anything else.  It comes from familiarity, warmth, enclosure, identification with one's neighbours and seems both comforting but also suffocating.  Danes are reputedly the happiest people in the world, which may derive from the validation with which they accord Hygge.  However, maintaining this warmth does come with an overhead - for example there is a passage about a week-long residential choir camp that had my toes curling in my shoes.  In this respect, I was reminded very much of the positive and negative aspects to having an extended family.

2   Allied to this striving for cosiness appears to be the concept of Jante Law, which is apparently fundamental to understanding the dynamics of Scandinavian life.  This is a drive towards conformity and adherence to rigid social norms which discourages any kind of exceptionalism.  Reading about this made me understand why Scandinavian countries are so different from the USA, where exceptionalism is venerated.  

3    Scandinavian homogeneity is also reflected in a low Gini coefficient - a measure of the gap between rich and poor.  I am conflicted in my attitude to income inequality.  From a philosophical point of view, I don't think the size of the economic pie is fixed; i.e. there is no reason why more wealth at one end of the spectrum should create more poverty at the other end.  However, it is undeniable that quality of life - especially outside the home - is better in a low Gini country than in a high Gini country.

This is a thought-provoking book that will make you feel slightly jealous that you don't live in Denmark.

06 April 2014

Bird by Bird - Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott [1995]

This is a book about writing which I read about a few months ago on  I picked it up because I am very interested in how creative people work.

The book is full of advice about writing, mixed in with the author's own reflections on life and death. The core advice running through the book is that one should write as much as possible and avoid the destructive pitfalls of perfectionism. It is really well-written - there is an earnest US self-help tone but this is tempered by barbed lances of self-deprecating humour which are unexpected and which leaven the tone completely.  One example:

"Maybe what you care most about are fasting and high colonics -  cappuccino enemas, say.  This is fine, but we do not want you to write about them; we will secretly believe that you are spiritualising your hysteria. There are millions of people already doing this at churches and new age festivals across the land."

I thought the phrase "spiritualising your hysteria" completely fantastic and worth the cost of the book alone.

15 March 2014

The Oster Conspiracy of 1938 by Terry Parssinen [2002]

I was given this by a friend.  It's a really engrossing account of a plot to kill Hitler in 1938 that I had never heard of.  It therefore presages the more famous Von Stauffenberg assassination attempt on 20 July 1944, though interestingly, some of the same people were involved in both. In the backlash following the 1944 attempt would sweep up a lot of the earlier conspirators as well, including Hans Oster himself.

There are a few interesting points which stay with me:

1    The calibre of Oster and the men opposed to Hitler. What this book suggests is that among the German military elite there was significant distaste for Hitler and the fear that he was a lunatic.  The author contrasts this elite cadre of honourable intellectuals with the mass of the Volk who are in Hitler's thrall.

This is interesting  because of the questions it raises about war guilt and a the concept of the 'Good German'.  Like anyone who has visited Germany in the 20th century, I have been in beer halls and found myself looking across at the cuddly old grandfather and wondering 'what did you do?'  Even at the time I could appreciate that this is not a particularly healthy filter through which to view life and I am grateful for the fact that the passage of time has made it less relevant now. 

2    The parallels between Hitler's movement into Czechoslovakia via the Sudetenland and what is currently happening in Ukraine are striking.  When one reads Hitler's justification for the invasion it does not seem so different from the rhetoric coming out of Russia.  I appreciate that I am not the only person to have spotted this.

3    The author contends that the Oster plot failed because of Neville Chamberlain and appeasement.  The Munich Agreement in 1938 legalized the annexation of Czechoslovakia and this diplomatic coup by Hitler took the wind out of the conspirators' sails.  An example of the negative and unintended consequences of giving in to a bully.

10 March 2014

Sushi and Beyond: What the Japanese Know About Cooking by Michael Booth [2010]

A travel book about a culinary journey through Japan.  Very light but better-written than most books ploughing the furrow of "Englishman takes a wry look at a foreign country and its occasionally hilarious ways".

I picked this up because I am mildly obsessed with Japanese food.  It is exotic, but also clean and healthy - whenever I eat it I feel like a better version of myself.  Reading this book reminded me of the Japanese cookery classes I went on a couple of years ago, which completely changed my attitude to cooking and shopping for food.  The author describes the experience of being in Japan very well and reading it made me want to go to Japan and visit the Tsukiji Fish Market before it closes.  And to eat okonomiyaki again.

This book also made me think about reading as escapism and in particular travel books and recipe books.  I have a slightly ambivalent attitude to these sort of books - I love reading them but I am also aware that they tend towards feeding a dissatisfaction with the here and now.

22 February 2014

Fear of Music (33 1/3) by Jonathan Lethem [2012]

This is a book of beautifully-written criticism of an early album by Talking Heads, one of my favourite bands.  

Jonathan Lethem goes through each song on the album, chapter by chapter, tying everything back to his first experience of listening to the album in 1979.  It's difficult to describe the writing - it is incredibly densely written, each page of prose like a rich, complex meal.  It is very personal and evocative and the images and associations Lethem creates seem to bleed from the music onto the page.

I had never heard of the author, but I looked him up and discovered that he holds the same professorship at Pomona that David Foster Wallace held.  This link makes a lot of sense to me, as his discursive intelligence jumps off the page in the same way.

This book is a great example of how to write intelligent (and non-obvious) criticism. It's impossible to read at one sitting because it's like reading prose poetry. I would recommend this to anyone who likes Talking Heads - this book will make you want to listen to the album again. 

15 February 2014

Daily Rituals by Mason Currey [2013]

This book has bite-size descriptions of the daily work rituals of 161 creative people (authors, painters, composers).  It is assembled from copious material in a blog by Mason Currey.

I really enjoyed this book.  What I found interesting was the importance of routine.  This book gives the lie to the idea of inspiration coming unbidden from above - it is very clear that the people profiled worked for a living.  Reading this made me wonder what a similar book about entrepreneurs and business titans would read like.  Presumably a lot more early starts and a lot less drinking.

A great book to read on the lavatory.

02 February 2014

A Short Guide to a Long Life by David B. Agus, MD [2014]

This is a short book that I read recently whilst in bed with a cold.  

The book is a series of bite-sized rules for better health by a famous US cancer doctor.  It is in a similar format to Michael Pollan's Food Rules: An Eater's Manual, which it references.  

This could be a little preachy, and at times it is (a characteristic it shares with Pollan's book). But the rules do make sense, and the author is refreshingly sceptical of vitamins, juicing, detox and other fads.

I am glad I read it because it may motivate me to start having a regular check-up.

Intellectual Property Securitization by Alexander Kirsch [2007]

A small practitioner's book which provides an interesting overview of securitization in general, in addition to the specific securitization of IP revenue streams.  I picked it up it up because I was interested in finding out more about lending against intangible assets. 

This book is an admirable basic primer into how securitization works and I learned a lot from it.  It also makes the interesting point that intellectual property is in general an under-exploited asset.

An interesting historical footnote - the book was written in 2007, prior to the financial crisis, and accordingly securitization is viewed as an unalloyed good.

In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works and Shapes our Lives by Steven Levy [2011]

I picked this up because I saw this really interesting presentation by Rick Klau of Google Ventures on how Google adopted a goal setting and tracking process called OKR in order to monitor progress.  Levy's book talks about OKR (Objective Key Results) planning but it is also a fascinating history of Google.  In addition to OKR, which I think is really cool, the following points remain with me:

1    How Google revolutionized server infrastructure by moving from one big expensive box to series of cheaper lower capacity boxes.  The failure rate for these individual cheap servers was much higher than for bigger more expensive ones, but they overcame this by linking them in series in a way that had apparently not been done at scale before.  

2    The company's vacillations in its approach to China and censorship.  What I found interesting was the negative reaction this approach elicited, when it seemed to me to be pretty standard form by a company trying to do the best for its shareholders.  

The interesting question is why do people expect Google - essentially an advertising company - to act in ways non-aligned with its shareholders' interests? 

Perhaps it is because there is an expectation that the cool services Google provides should somehow be generated from purely altruistic purposes and provided for free; however, one does not need to be a foaming-mouthed Ayn Rand fantasist to see that this expectation is unrealistic.

A great book that made me want to move to California.

26 January 2014

The Secrets of Happy Families: Improve Your Mornings, Tell Your Family History, Fight Smarter, Go Out and Play, and Much More by Bruce Feiler [2013]

I approached this book - as I do most self-help books - in a slightly conflicted frame of mind. On the one hand, I am as keen as the next man on learning and self-improvement.  But on the other, I sometimes struggle with the cheery optimism of traditional self-help books.  They often seem to be targeted only at the sort of people who are able to effect radical change in their lives.  My view is that if one had the necessary self-discipline to follow the edicts, one would be unlikely to be in need of a self-help book in the first place.  

And so I read on more in hope than expectation, on the off-chance that a stray piece of advice may deliver a glancing yet lasting blow; in practice, the good intentions rarely live more than a few days beyond completion of the book.  The only exception to this rule is Allen Carr's truly amazing smoking book which I read as a heavy smoker 14 years ago and which somehow hypnotized me into stopping cold turkey, for which I am forever grateful.

I picked this book up because I have been thinking a lot recently about ways in which I can improve as a parent.  Two key themes I picked up from this book:

1  The importance of creating family rituals and traditions to reinforce cross-generational ties and a sense of tribal belonging.

2  The power of decentralization - making children take responsibility for organizing their lives (and letting them learn from failure). 

I'm glad I read this book because it made me think more about these ideas.