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My best reads of 2019

Writing about what I read in the past twelve months has become an annual ritual, part of the seasonal no-man’s-land between Boxing Day and New Year’s Eve when we relax and reflect and get confused about what day of the week it is.

This year I read 59 books (at the time of writing, anyway). You can see all of them and along with ratings and reviews on my Goodreads profile if you like. I’ve selected a top 5 in each of three categories: fiction, non-fiction and business.

It’s difficult to pick out just five, especially in fiction. I’ve not included some books I enjoyed immensely, but these are the five

Fiction top five

1. The Wall, by John Lanchester

A near-future Britain, the Island has been surrounded by a massive seawall that keeps out the Others, refugees from an otherwise mainly flooded world as the oceans rise. Young people have to do a kind of high stakes national service on the wall, repelling or killing anyone who tries to get in. If they fail to stop anyone, they are put to sea and lose their citizenship. There is intergenerational guilt — “OK, Boomer” played out — Johnsonesque politicians and all manner of echoes of now.

I read and listened to The Wall (and I’d highly recommend the audiobook, which is narrated by Will Poulter). It’s a simple, sad and short book, the story contained and precise — a stabbing punch to the gut.

The Wall stayed with me and reflected the mood of the year — of the last four years — living through the Brexit crisis in all its twisting manifestations and the gathering intensity of the climate emergency. Don’t let that put you off, though — it’s a great read.

2. The Wych Elm, by Tana French

Tana French’s In the Woods was turned into the BBC series Dublin Murders this year, and The Wych Elm was published along with heartfelt endorsements from authors like Gillian Glynn and Stephen King.

The Wych Elm was the first book I read in 2019 and it was a brilliant start to a great year of fiction. Written in the first person, a young PR practitioner in Dublin tells his story, one that doesn’t so much have a twist as much a series of moments where it turns itself inside out and performs a similar exercise on your mind. The voice of the protagonist is beguiling and real, you are with him from a drunken night out through a long dark night for his soul and sense of self. But I’m making it sound profound and challenging — it’s a suspense mystery that is exactly as complex as you want to make it as the reader.

The Wych Elm reminded me of the best non-science fiction novels of Iain Banks, especially The Crow Road. It has a quality of being once read like one of your own memories. Now that’s a mark of a good book.

*Published as The Witch Elm in America. I know this because I got an American copy as it came out a few months later in the UK and I couldn’t wait.

An enticing stack of The Wych Elm in Waterstones.

3. The Testaments, by Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood turned 80 a few weeks ago. She won the Booker Prize — shared with Bernardine Evaristo, for Girl, Woman, Other— for The Testaments.

The Handmaid’s Tale is like 1984 a book that made a huge wave when it was published but has grown in reputation and readership as it has aged and its warnings about the future have continued to resonate like an alarm bell that cannot be silenced. To write a sequel to a book that has taken on so much importance and a life — or lives, even — of its own is bold for the author and scary for the readers. What if she gets it wrong?

She didn’t. Taking an unexpected and wholly new perspective on the world of Gilead and the story, The Testaments was everything one might have hoped for from this book. My short review of the book on Goodreads was:

The HandMaid’s Tale is like 1984. You follow the victim protagonist through the dystopia as they survive and triumph or fall. The Testaments is like Wolf Hall, it is about politics and survival in a deadly regime. I heard Atwood say Cromwell was Henry VIII’s Aunt Lydia, and that stuck in my mind while reading some of this book.

Margaret Atwood is my favorite author of the my past decade’s reading. I’ve read more of her books than anyone else’s and become one that rare species, a heterosexual male Atwood fan. I was completely unaware of how rare this was until I went to see her at The Dome, a large theatre in Brighton where a thousand or more people had turned out to see her interviewed on stage. I bumped into ten or more friends at the bar before the event and in the interval. Not one was a man. During the Q&A from the audience, the lack of men there was discussed and laughed about, giving me a through-the-looking-glass glimpse of what it is like to be the ignored, invisible minority in a room. How apt.

4. Machines Like Me, by Ian McEwan

Ian McEwan did something new for his writing with this book: speculative fiction. Machines Like Me is based in a counterfactual history of the 1980s, where Turing wasn’t arrested after the war for being gay and driven to suicide, and so was able to accelerate the information revolution, which results in super-smart missiles for the Falklands War and the first artificial intelligence-powered automatons for sale, among other things.

I wrote the following review:

My favourite Ian McEwan novel yet. The odd, parallel world it takes place is headily high concept, but never overpowers the central plot or the relationships between the sometimes machine-like humans and the sometimes human-like machine between them.

I look forward to reading it again. While I was reading it this time it pushed all my other reading to the sides and demanded all of my attention. It made me uncertain and unsettled and yet unable to do anything but keep reading.

Something there in common with all of my top five fiction books for 2019 — I would like to read all of them again.

5. Libra, by Don DeLillo

An account of the John F Kennedy assassination, focusing on Lee Harvey Oswald. I picked it up after reading an interview with James Ellroy, who said it convinced him of the lone gunman theory where previously he had seen a conspiracy. The atmosphere and themes are close to Ellroy’s Underworld U.S.A. Trilogy. The terrible things emerge from a cross-hatch of small, selfish plots and plays by Mafiosi, CIA, FBI and assorted low-lives and one sad, lonely simpleton. The things that look like conspiracies in hindsight are accidents because the actual conspiracies never really achieve coherence.

Libra is the first DeLillo book I’ve read and I want to read more as soon as I can.

I’ll end this section with the opening paragraph of the book, which smacks you round the brain with an image of Oswald as a child, riding a subway train in New York:

This was the year he rode the subway to the ends of the city, two hundred miles of track. He liked to stand at the front of the first car, hands flat against the glass. The train smashed through the dark. People stood on local platforms staring nowhere, a look they’d been practising for years. He kind of wondered, speeding past, who they were. His body fluttered in the fastest stretches. They went so fast sometimes he thought they were on the edge of no-control. The noise was pitched to a level of pain he absorbed as a personal test. Another crazy-ass curve. There was so much iron in the sound of those curves he could almost taste it, like a toy you put in your mouth when you are little.

Non-fiction top five

1. Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style, by Benjamin Dreyer

The title page of the American edition of Dreyer’s English

What a book!

After reading an interview with Benjamin Dreyer, copy chief Random House, I knew I would love this book and ordered a copy from the United States. When the UK edition was published, I’ve got two more copies for our library at Brilliant Noise. Here’s what I wrote in my review:

I‘m not sure I’ve ever a style guide — and this is not quite that but close enough — from cover-to-cover before. Certainly, I’ve never enjoyed one as much as this. Dreyer gives us as much of his experience and advice about writing as he can get out of his head and onto the page. He’s clear about where there aren’t rules and where taste and style matter — and then lays down his taste like the law, but in such a charming and wry way that you will love it.

This is a book a joy for people who write a great deal — but I think that anyone with an interest in writing a little better than they do already would get a lot from this book, especially the first two thirds. The last third is more a reference work in list form of things to do or not to do.

I won’t read it from start to finish again, but I will be keeping a copy within arm’s reach of my desk at home and I’ve ordered one for our office library too. I have a feeling that one may not be enough there — it’s going to be in demand.

I note that a game based on the book will be out in the summer. I can’t wait…

Evidence that Dreyer’s English sits on my desk as an essential reference.

2. Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams, by Matthew Walker

An eight-hour non-negotiable window of opportunity to sleep, less caffeine and as little alcohol as you can. That’s the not-so-magic trick to getting more sleep, according to Matthew Walker, a sleep scientist and, it turns out, an excellent writer.

Sometimes I suffer from insomnia. Or at least I thought I did. As Walker broke down the problems with sleeping, I realised I may simply be sleep-deprived, and just need to be more consistent in how I go about getting sleep.

Whatever the issue is called. I’m interested in how to get more sleep and have read a fair few books on the subject. Many are patronising, poorly researched or — worst of all, scaremongering. Given how likely it is that someone reading a book about sleep may have trouble sleeping, a couple of chapters upfront about how bad for you a lack of sleep can be is thoughtless at best, cruel in the worst analysis.

Although there is a chapter on the effects of not getting enough sleep — I skipped it on my first reading — Walker describes sleeping more in such attractive terms that you become interested in getting more in a positive sense, as opposed to trying to avoid losing sleep. His descriptions of deep sleep as rich and nourishing are like a gifted food writer’s description of an exotic dish. It makes you want to rush out and buy it or make it and indulge in the delight of it. A sleep gourmand, a connoisseur of slumber — now that would be something to aspire to be…

Why We Sleep feels like it is written by the expert on the matter, a primary expert rather than a lifestyle journalist, not a sleep-coach, not a productivity guru, but a scientist who has dedicated their life to understanding sleep, and who gives us with a clear, engaging account of the state of scientific knowledge about sleep. Because of this, the book is deeply fascinating, fresh and useful.

3. The Science of Storytelling, by Will Storr

Cognitive science and storytelling are both subjects that completely enthral me. I’ve read a couple of books that address the intersection of these subjects, but none have been as thrilling and inspiring as The Science of Storytelling. Will Storr teaches a writing course, which seems to be well admired. He’s taken everything from that course and then dived deep into the field of neuroscience to understand the detail of what happens to our brains when we hear a story — why it is so satisfying, so compelling to hear a story that we seek them out constantly and when we hear a good one are completely transfixed.

This is a book that is particularly useful to writers, but since we all use and consume stories as part of our daily lives, it could be interesting to anyone.

4. 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, by Yuval Noah Harari

Many books on this list are ones I found it hard to stop reading once I started. As I read several books at the same time, the sign that I’ve found something really special is often that all the others are set aside for a few days while I focus completely on the one text.

That wasn’t the case with 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. At first, it felt like a series of essays. Less compelling than Harari’s two previous books’ grand narratives about the past (Sapiens) and future (Homo Deus), I wondered if it was cynical cash in on his success, a collection of articles packaged together by the publisher to tide us over until his next great work was complete.

As I read on, however, I grew more engrossed in the themes he was addressing: the of power stories (it’s a great book to pair with The Science of Storytelling), our relationship with technology and change, ways that society is likely to change in the next few decades.

This isn’t necessarily a book with all the answers, but it has some damn good questions. It’s a book for grown-up minds that don’t need all of their answers wrapped up in twenty-minute inspiring talks or feel-good self-help manuals.

Let me share one quote which I have used a couple of times at the end of this year, and that speaks to the challenges of our times and that is typical of the thoughtful provocations and insights in the book:

Panic is a form of hubris. It comes from the smug feeling that I know exactly where the world is heading — down. Bewilderment is more humble, and therefore more clear-sighted. If you feel like running down the street crying ‘The apocalypse is upon us!’, try telling yourself ‘No, it’s not that. Truth is, I just don’t understand what’s going on in the world.’

It’s a good place to start.

5. Systems Thinkers, by Magnus Ramage and Karen Shipp

In the spirit of inquiry and of accepting the uncertainty and complexity of our world, as set out in Harari’s book, I took a whole year to work through the last of my five picks for non-fiction books. For years I’ve been attempting to understand my company as a system, and in the last 18 months or so I’ve intensified my efforts to understand and put to work the ideas in the field of systems thinking. Naively, I was hoping there was a manual somewhere that would have a step-by-step guide to drawing a tube map-like diagram of how an entity like a business works. As none seemed to exist, I realised I needed to go deeper into the topic. Having read Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook, I knew some of the principles (Senge is one of the thinkers the book includes).

Looking for a primer on the subject I came across Systems Thinkers, written by two academics from the Open University. It is an expensive coursebook — the Kindle version was nearly £50 — but I treated the expense and the reading of the book like a distance learning course, which made it all seem a little more reasonable.

Over the year I worked through the chapters, each describing a major figure in the field of systems thinking and what they contributed, followed by an excerpt from one of their books or articles. There are 25 people profiled across seven phases in the development of the systems thinking over the past 100 years, from early cybernetics to learning systems. The ideas are big and hard to grasp at times — one book cited is called How Real is Real? — but I did find intellectual slog in some the sections is leavened by details of eccentricities and strange working patterns of some of the thinkers — one knits while chairing intense discussions, one refuses to move universities because it would endanger his vast network of connected ideas that he has captured in a pre-web “hyperlinked” set of index cards, someone else looks and speaks like an 1860s evangelical preacher while working at MIT in the 1960s.

Systems thinking has an influence on so many ideas and — a splinter from it is renamed “artificial intelligence, the concept of ecosystems comes from it, some of those profiled use their insights in work as software engineering consultants, family therapists and management consultants — and insights from the middle of the twentieth century still sound fresh and even challenging today, fifty or sixty years later.

Business books top five

Image: From Libreria bookshop, near Brick Lane in London

My choice of business books is never going to be everyone’s bag. I read business books for specific reasons more than for general knowledge or inspiration. These five are books that made an impression and that I think I will refer again in the coming months. 

1. The Future of the Professions: How Technology Will Transform the Work of Human Experts, by Richard and Daniel Susskind

A superb and in-depth analysis of the prospects for the professions – knowledge workers with barriers to entry to their field, like lawyers, doctors and accountants – which also has a huge amount of relevance for anyone who will be working in the next couple of decades. 

Why this book is useful is because of the rigour and the critical analysis of the authors. It is – depending on the frame you choose to adopt – either inspiring or terrifying. Professionals and knowledge workers are both on the verge of being hugely disrupted by technologies including machine learning and automation. I’ll read it again and would urge anyone interested in these questions to put it to the very top of their reading list. 

A choice excerpt from The Future of The Professions

2. Agile Transformation: Structures, Processes and Mindsets for the Digital Age, by Neil Perkin

I know Neil and have worked with him in the past on the Dots Conference by Brilliant Noise which he helped curate. This is is his second book addressing strategy and management in the age of digital disruption and a highly useful contribution to the field.

What Neil has done with Agile Transformation is to provide an effective and usable field-book for consultants and executives trying to develop better ways of working and organising themselves. I work in this area myself, so I knew a lot of the examples and models that are offered, but even the bits I know they are so well articulated and curated with evidence and explanations that I have found it a useful reference source when working with clients. We have several copies of Neil’s previous book in the Brilliant Noise library and have regularly given them to clients and partners to help explain fundamental ideas like digital mindset and agile working.

3. The Firm: The Inside Story of McKinsey, The World’s Most Controversial Management Consultancy

Here’s a good example of the Feynman Test. You know McKinsey, right? They have been around for the whole of your career. You, like anyone else in business or government or professional life, has an opinion on the firm. Here’s the test: write down an explanation of what they do, what your opinion of them is and the rationale behind it. Each time you get to a bit that you find hard to explain or fill in the details, circle it in red or some other method of highlighting text.

Unless you have worked for McKinsey or read this book, the answer will be full of highlighted gaps — you have an impression and scraps of information with perhaps one or two examples, but not a complete, fact-based view of the company.

The Firm is fascinating in all sorts of ways. Seeing what’s myth and what’s not, an example of practical and practised elitism (a word I don’t intend as a pejorative, the politics of a powerful global organisation, its influence on global business and politics, and the most incredible business model I’ve ever heard of in consultancy (charging what it likes). As a bonus, the book also serves as a gap-filler for your knowledge of how management thinking has evolved since the early twentieth century. A bit like Systems Thinkers, I found I suddenly understood the relationships between different big ideas like strategic planningconglomeration and core competence and the political and economic contexts of their times. 

4. Narconomics: How to Run a Drug Cartel, by Tom Wainwright 

How you frame an issue is everything, and there’s always more than one frame that can be usefully applied. How massively wealthy criminal organisations work as economic entities and organisations is a new frame on issues in business and management. It’s also a new frame on how drug cartels work – the reporting of them too limited to give a sense of the scale and complexity, and fiction being more like a soap opera than insight into how they work.

The book won me over by immediately calling bullshit on the valuation of drug seizures by law enforcement organisations (they are usually calculated at street prices rather than wholesale, which is misleading and unhelpful). Unlike the way that fiction deals with organised crime, there isn’t a sneaking admiration for the drug-lords in here, there is a matter-of-fact examination of the relationship between violence, risk and pay and the quality of recruits a gang can attract, the advantages and disadvantages of franchising.

5. Bad Blood: Secrets & Lies in aa Silicon Valley Startup, by John Carreyrou

What a story…

Elisabeth Holmes, a Stanford dropout, starts a company that will be the iPhone of medicine – unbelievably easy, cheap and fast blood testing. Unbelievable, because it wasn’t true. However, thanks to its charismatic, well-connected founder and a growing pile of venture capitalist cash, it was able to cause people to suspend disbelief for long enough that actual pharmacies started using their service with actual people. 

Books about massive screw-ups, disasters and corruption are fascinating first for the mistakes, but also for the look inside companies that they provide. 

This story is a fable of the hokum of positive thinking (a.k.a. magical thinking) that makes people think it is just wanting something enough that is required to bend reality and deliver a breakthrough. No one believed in this company more than Elizabeth Holmes, to the point where dissent was an unforgivable violation and where unfortunate people’s health was disregarded. 

How could this happen? Well, greed. Incompetence. Cults of personality. It’s not new and it’s not over. There are Theranos-clones in business now, building up their hype and hoping not to get outed before they IPO. We await the books about Adam Neumann’s WeWork shenanigans with interest. 

Previous years’ book-lists

Previously, I posted these lists on Medium and cross-post to my blog. For the sake of consistency and ease of reference, I’ll pull the links together here.

Image: And a little one that I wrote – Better Marketing (free download).

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The Hero

My lovely sister-in-law and her husband gave me this TLS monograph as a Christmas gift: The Hero, by Lee Child. It’s rather magnificent, so I’m posting my Goodreads review here too:

This is a very short book. You’re either going to read it because you like Lee Child’s writing or are curious what the author of the most successful contemporary series of books about an archetypal hero has to say on this subject. If you know someone who likes Lee Child, this may be the perfect gift.

I like Lee Child’s writing a lot. He delivers great Jack Reacher books on schedule once a year and more often than not they are brilliant, and always they are exactly what you want and expect from these stories. I am not damning with faint praise here – he is a superb writer. I heard – or read – him say once that he took a great deal of care over his sentences, and was always delighted by ones he liked, but that success was writing that didn’t draw attention to itself.

I mention this because this book is a lovely example of his writing outside of the Reacher series. It’s an essay on the origins of fiction and of the idea of the hero. Both the prose and the structure are a joy to read – just like Child’s fiction they pull you in, carefully, steadily and keep you transfixed. Friends have told me they read Reacher books faster than any other and the reason is the writing – it’s hard to take your attention away. It’s almost as if you are afraid you will miss something. That’s good writing.

I read it in one sitting.

The essay takes you on a waltz through history and anthropology and evolutionary psychology without ever showing off or slowing down.

I loved it. You should buy it and read it too.

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Scrum, by Jeff Sutherland — Book report and highlights

Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time by Jeff Sutherland is part memoir and part introductory practical guide to the Scrum method for software development, which the author invented in the early 2010s and which is hugely popular and influential in business and management more generally.

I gave the book five stars on Goodreads/Amazon and wrote the following review:

An absolutely essential read for managers, leaders or anyone who wants to get more done in a team

Concise, compelling and practical. Basically those are the three criteria for a business book for me and Scrum scores five stars in each category.

Visionary without getting too preachy — I ‘d say this is an essential management read. I’d imagine whether you are new to Scrum/Agile or a past master it is a very useful book.

This year at Brilliant Noise we have been using OKRs (Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) for our business challenges. In the quarterly cycle just about to finish, we have experimented with company-wide OKR projects with teams comprising everyone in the business. This has given everyone  the chance to work with the Scrum method, soem for the first time (myself included). I mention this because Scrum is a method which is interesting conceptually, but is definitely something you need to be doing in order to properly understand. In the context of the Brilliant Noise OKR projects, this book was incredibly useful for getting a deeper understanding of Scrum. 

The following are the main things I took away from my first reading of the book. 

Scrum requires a high level of honesty and discipline in a team

As my colleague Rachael Rainbow put it “A lot of people think agile methods are relaxed, free and easy, but they aren’t — they are incredibly disciplined.” You have to be clear about the direction, clear about what is valuable, and communicate frequently, openly and candidly to achieve progress. These are all things we all want all the time, regardless of whether we are in an agile project or not, but Scrum — with its frequent deadlines, team check-ins, and constant prioritising on what the next most important thing

The importance of prioritising by value

The Scrum method’s use of a backlog is a hugely important element in the method and one which helps make progress more likely by acknowledging that not everything you want to do will be done.

Sutherland says:

The idea behind the Backlog is that it should have everything that could possibly be included in the product. You’re never going to actually build it all, but you want a list of everything that could be included in that product vision.

You cannot do everything you want to do. Even within a focused strategy there will be more actions that you want to complete than you can. In Scrum, there is a backlog where you store every task that you could take on, but you try to pick the ones that will give the most value.

This principle is liberating and lowers stress levels. I’ve reflected it into every aspect of my personal time and energy management.

Scrum is not exclusively useful for software development

I’d understood agile and Scrum as coming from the software world and that they might not be suitable for a services company like Brilliant Noise. I could already see that this wasn’t true by the profound breakthroughs and progress we’d been achieving by using the Scrum method for our OKR projects.

What the book did was show me why, both by highlighting use studies of various types of team using Scrum — news teams in media organisations was one of the most relevant — but also that the roots of Scrum were in the Toyota lean manufacturing method, which in turn was based on post-War management techniques promoted by the occupation government of General McArthur in Japan.

There is a lot of room to make Scrum your own

Some of my encounters with Scrum practitioners in the past had felt intimidating and left me thinking that there was almost an introverted, cult-like introversion about the approach. Having a felt sense of what a Scrum project is like, and reading the book meant that I was a lot clearer that the practices of Scrum invite innovation and improvisation — you need to make Scrum your own when you start using the method and doubtless keep refining it to fit your challenges and culture. 

Scrum is not the only way to organise a project

Some projects lend themselves more to waterfall project management — things where the ways of doing things are clear and have hard deadlines for instance, like organising a small conference that you’ve run before.

Scrum excels with challenges where we don’t know what the answer is (and are honest enough to admit it). Things where something is going to need to be invented, designed for the first time lend themselves well to the Scrum method.

As Sutherland puts it:

Scrum embraces uncertainty and creativity. It places a structure around the learning process, enabling teams to assess both what they’ve created and, just as important, how they created it. The Scrum framework harnesses how teams actually work and gives them the tools to self-organize and rapidly improve both speed and quality of work.

Useful quotes

I highlighted a lot of Scrum as I read it, but these are some quotes that I will keep with me for reference.

Scrum, like aikido, or, heck, like the tango, is something that you can only really learn by doing. Your body and your mind and your spirit become aligned through constant practice and improvement.

On how Scrum can provide temporary relief from silos, but bad habits will often remerge:

I’ve seen this happen at one large financial institution in Boston repeatedly. They’ll call me up in a panic when they have a mission-critical project that is in trouble. They’ll have me train dozens of their people in Scrum, have me start up teams that are capable of addressing their emergency. They direct people from across the organization into cross-functional teams to address the issue. And then they solve it. Once the crisis is past, they disband the teams to their respective silos and managerial fiefdoms.

On daily stand-ups as habit:

…it didn’t matter what time of day the meeting took place, as long as it was at the same time every day. The point was to give the team a regular heartbeat.

On waste:

Ohno talked about three different types of waste. He used the Japanese words: Muri, waste through unreasonableness; Mura, waste through inconsistency; and Muda, waste through outcomes.

On over-planning:

As I’ve said previously, the very act of planning is so seductive, so alluring, that planning itself becomes more important than the actual plan. And the plan becomes more important than reality. Never forget: the map is not the terrain.

On avoiding prioritising:

One bad habit a company can fall into, because of constantly shifting market needs and because managers don’t know exactly where the most value lies, is prioritizing everything. Everything is top priority. The adage to keep in mind comes from Frederick II of Prussia, later to be called “the Great”: “He who will defend everything defends nothing.” By not concentrating both your resources and your mental energies, you thin them out to irrelevancy.

Scrum scales well:

An important thing to say about Scrum is that it rarely remains a one-off for long—it’s built to scale.

On bad behaviour and blame:

it’s pointless to look for evil people; look instead for evil systems. Let’s ask a question that has a chance to actually change things: “What is the set of incentives that drives bad behavior?”

On levels of mastery:

Earlier in this book I discussed the martial arts concept of Shu Ha Ri. People in the Shu state follow the rules exactly, so they learn the ideas behind them. People in the Ha state begin to create their own style within the rules, adapting them to their needs. People in the Ri state exist beyond the rules; they embody the ideals. Watching a true master in the Ri state is like looking at a moving work of art. His or her actions seem impossible, but that’s because the master has become a philosophy in flesh, an idea made real.

Scrum is for pragmatists:

Scrum is the code of the anti-cynic. Scrum is not wishing for a better world, or surrendering to the one that exists.

: : Hat tip to David Lockie for the book recommendation. 

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Public notebook

New technology boosts the old

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As cheerleaders for incumbent media often point out, the old is rarely replaced by the new. Newspapers weren’t killed by radio, radio wasn’t killed by TV, TV wasn’t killed by online video – etc., etc.

Sometimes new technology boosts the old.

Dipping in again to the excellent Writing on the Wall: Social Media, the First 2,000 Years, I read:

Printing pushed up demand for paper throughout Europe, encouraging production and making it cheaper (its price fell by 40 percent during the fifteenth century) and more widely available. Printed books promoted literacy and writing manuals could be produced in quantity.

We can see a similar effect today with writing and books. Earlier in Writing on the Wall, Tom Standage notes that book writing was a serious undertaking in Roman times. You had to be literate, rich enough to have a dedicated cohort of slaves for scribing and couriering purposes during the research, notable enough to throw a top-notch launch party and – by some advice of the time – spend about nine years perfecting your manuscript before releasing it into the network of copyists (all reproduction was by hand, of course).

Now writing – and publishing – books is within the grasp of anyone. A cynic would say that you don’t even need that high a degree of literacy.

In the US, 391,000 books were self-published, only about a third of these were e-book only titles. In fact, an article in the Guardian notes, this figure is conservative:

The exclusion of hundreds of thousands of titles published without an ISBN, including many titles on Amazon’s Kindle store, means that the increase of 422% since 2007 this represents is likely to be an underestimate of the size of the self-publishing sector.

Rather than reach for the pessimist’s fall-back of the monkey-typewriter paradigm, recognise this for what it is – a golden age of reading and – even more – writing. New forms of media are making old forms easier for everyone to access and work with, once again.

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Datafication

“Big data” as a term reminds me of “social media” a few years ago. It is in danger – through mis-use and over-use – of losing its currency before many people fully understand its significance. And it is very, very significant indeed.

One of the books I’m reading – at a rapid pace which is testament to its usefulness – is Big Data: A Revolution that will transform how we live, work and think, by The Economist’s data editor, Kenneth Cukier and Viktor Mayer-Schonberger, of the Oxford Internet Institute.

One of the problems with the term “big data” is that it is doing too many jobs. Cukier and Mayer-Schonberger offer us a provisional term for the revolution in data that we are living through:

There’s no good term to describe what’s taking place now, but one that helps frame the changes is datafication, a concept that we introduce in Chapter Five. It refers to taking information about all things under the sun—including ones we never used to think of as information at all, such as a person’s location, the vibrations of an engine, or the stress on a bridge—and transforming it into a data format to make it quantified.

Awkward as it is, “datafication” works for me as a description (possibly simply because it isn’t “big data”).

And the definition of big data? Try these:

There is no rigorous definition of big data. Initially the idea was that the volume of information had grown so large that the quantity being examined no longer fit into the memory that computers use for processing, so engineers needed to revamp the tools they used for analyzing it all. That is the origin of new processing technologies like Google’s MapReduce and its open-source equivalent, Hadoop, which came out of Yahoo. These let one manage far larger quantities of data than before, and the data—importantly—need not be placed in tidy rows or classic database tables. Other data-crunching technologies that dispense with the rigid hierarchies and homogeneity of yore are also on the horizon.

Or

big data refers to things one can do at a large scale that cannot be done at a smaller one, to extract new insights or create new forms of value, in ways that change markets, organizations, the relationship between citizens and governments, and more.

Before you get too cynical, before your cortex starts rejecting any conversation, content or plan that includes “big data”, I urge you to read this book. It’s a great primer on the issues and opportunities that the era of big data presents us with.

It also quickly introduces some key concepts that are incredibly powerful – about the messiness of data, the switch from causes to correlation and other ideas. It has my brain fizzing in the same way that The Origin of Wealth and Linked did a few years ago about networks and complexity.

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Why I finish books

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Living with ebooks, as I have been since I bought my first iPad a few years back, has changed my reading. It’s also given me more ways of understanding how I read and how I want to read.

Let’s get the nostalgia out of the way first. I miss paper books. I still read paper books, occasionally, but usually for specific, diminishing reasons. The first reason is that I can’t get a Kindle version of a book, or I already own the paper version. Both of these reasons are diminishing: the former because more and more books, even ones that were out of print are becoming available electronically; the latter is less of an issue as time passes because, due to the convenience of ebooks for note-taking, portability etc., I will sometimes buy ebook versions of the paper ones I own – if I’m using them for reference on a project, for instance, or in a couple of cases of fiction, because I love them so much and I want to have them with me when I’m travelling or just not at home.

At least that’s the case for non-fiction – sometimes, I love to read on paper. I think of it as hi-fidelity reading though – it’s a luxury, a treat – about time and place as much of the medium.

I’ve always read several books at the same time. Different books for different reasons and different times of day – some for projects, some for things I’m studying, some instructional, some fiction. With ebooks this habit has continued but with the number of books expanding even further. I’ll read some in bursts and then put them aside for a few days, weeks or months, and then pick them up again.

The other habit that has continued from reading paper books to ebooks – and been similarly exaggerated in the transition – is not finishing them.

Business or popular science books that lose their hold on my attention halfway through, get left behind, put on the virtual shelf.

I used to feel bad about not finishing books, but this was some kind of a vestigial puritan instinct, something about not letting things go to waste, finishing what you’ve started. Really, it’s a healthy habit – not all books deserve to be finished, not all need to be finished. There are other things you could be doing.

Rather than asking myself “why don’t I finish books?”, as if I had some kind of reading disorder, or lacked moral fibre, it is much more interesting to ask: “why do I finish books?” and then to wonder what that tells me about good writing.

Not finishing books is mostly a non-fiction phenomenon. Fiction books pull me through to the end with plot, with their beginnings, middles and ends. Non-fiction books rarely pull that trick off and very often fail to cohere past the first third.

A good many non-fiction books would benefit from being either shorter or serialised – Kindle singles hold some promise in this area, thought I’m not sure how well that format is doing. Not every non-fiction work needs to be 60,000 words plus (the minimum length for most paperbacks). A great example of an author showing restraint is Paul Adams’s Grouped, which is exactly the right length for what he has to say about social networks – about 45,000 words/170 pages.

To hold our attention and to be useful, books should be useful in every chapter – I’m not sure that this is the case. I think they get padded – stretched to fit the format. Chunking things up in to 10,000 word segments would suit readers and save authors a lot of time too.

Whether new lengths and formats catch on for ebooks is something I’m watching closely. Especially as I definitely have another book in me right now – I just need to decide how it should come out, as it were.

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Hi-fidelity reading

The paperback book I am reading right now is The Big Sleep and Other Novels, by Raymond Chandler.  It’s a lovely Penguin Classics imprint, thick and light and good to hold.

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I bought it a month ago in paper version because I want to read it slowly, closely (as Francine Prose recommends). I first read Chandler when I was thirteen and fell in love – deeply – with his style. Coming back to it now is thrilling, especially taking time to read it word by word, feeling the shape of the sentences and paragraphs, letting the bright, colourful imagery hang in my mind for a few moments.

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Chandler writes in high definition. It’s prose that you want to play out on the best possible system: a relaxed mind, a calm room, off an analogue page that has texture, where the text has been imprinted.

I’m a reader and sometimes a writer, much more than I am a muso or a musician. So a paper page, read in a softly lit bedroom or attic study, with a warm drink next to me and near silence in the house – that’s the equivalent of an audiophile putting a vinyl disc onto a high-end turntable, connected to some valve-driven amp and played out through some speakers that cost as much as your car.

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Book review: Culture Shock, by Will McInnnes

 

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Disclaimer: I know Will. We work in the same town, in the same line of business and have evolved our approaches in parallel, you might say. We’re different in our views – but it is fair to say we share many values and models for understanding the world.

That said, he wouldn’t want me to be anything but honest…

So, who should read Culture Shock?

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Long term trends: The Ngrams Viewer

“A database of intentions” is how John Battelle described Google. It is a thrilling concept, at times unsettling, that you can see into the searching soul of the connected populace by seeing the words they use t find things.

Google Trends is one of those miraculous tools of the web that has quickly become commonplace. With a prophylactic time-lapse to keep its powerful advantage of insight, Google lets us see what people were search for by year and by region.

The other day I came across the Google Ngrams Viewer for the first time. This gives a slightly longer trends view in language, taking all the books since 1800 as its data set (actually up to 2008, I think).

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Holiday reading

In case you are looking for some ideas about what to read in the remainder of the summer, here are the books that have tickled my fancy over the summer months.

How I Escaped My Certain Fate, by Stewart Lee

Autobiographical story – interspersed with transcripts of some his shows – by my favourite stand-up comedian/ The book recounts his seeming career collapse, re-invention and return to stand-up comedy.

Take that it is utterly hilarious throughout as a given. Beyond that, what it gives a really interesting insight into the business of comedy and Lee’s creative/artistic methods. It doesn’t set out to be be or ever really use the tone of a profound book, but it is – there’s rich inspiration and example here for anyone thinking about being true to their own ideals or trying to remember, re-work what they do for a living.

NB: I read this on the Kindle app, even though Lee says he wrote it hoping it would only work on paper. It worked fine for me, although maybe I missed the point… ;)

Telling Lies for Fun and Profit, by Lawrence Block

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A book about writing fiction by one of my favourite crime authors (Lawrence Block wrote the amazing Matt Scudder series, set in late-70s, early-80s New York – well worth tracking down). Like How I Escaped My Certain Fate, it sets itself against the conventions of its genre, for instance stressingjust how hard writing is, what a work of hackery pulling together thousands of words is, truths I can attest to after my own non-fiction effort.

This is one of a number of books I’d read, or at leat read in part, before. Again, a joy of the Kindle is that I re-visited it on a whim, re-downloading it from my archive while away on holiday.

Anathem, by Neal Stephenson

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This is a multi-layered, cerebral sci-fi joy. But don’t let that put you off…

It’s a lovely book of ideas, but I’ll freely admit, it’s a bit geeky and if you’re not prepared to roll with the conceptual stuff and pages of people explaining scientific or metaphysical theory to each other you might not like it. Worked for me though…

The Psychopath Test, by Jon Ronson

An account by Jon Ronson of his research into the tickbox method of diagnosing psychopathy as a condition. Along the way he prods at fascinating subjects like the way that all mental illnesses are categorised (by some shouty psychaitrists in a small meeting room was the original approach a couple of decades ago – loudest theories win) and how madness exists at the edges of many people’s lives.

I ripped through this in a couple of days. It’s part gripping yarn – scientologists, war criminals and psychopaths-next-door rub shoulders in Ronson’s story – and part essay on what mental illness really means to us all. Highly recommend this…

The Power of Pull, by John Hagel and John Seely Brown

This is another book I pulled back out of my archive, partly because it speaks to a strategy project I’ve been working on and partly because it felt like it was time to revisit the source material for some ideas that have been exerting a strong pull on a lot of my work. It’s a business book, pure and simple, about how innovation and markets are speeding up as a consequence of the social web, and what strategies organsiations can put in place to thrive in this environment.

Business books I read all the way through are a minority. This is one of an even rarer breed: books I re-read… Probably as important to me now as The Origin of Wealth has been for the past half decade or so.

Change by Design, by Tim Brown

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Design thinking has come in for a bit of flack lately, but it still stands as an amazingly useful way to approach any challenge, from designing a physical object to planning a marketing campaign. I’ve put the ideas to work in refining my Networks Thinking perspective and in designing the next phase of my business.

What’s interesting as well, to connect it with The Power of Pull’s themes, is how quickly some of the case studies have aged. This book was written in 2009, but already since then some markets and companies have moved on a great deal – not least the mobile industry which has been turned on its head in the past three years. Is design thinking is optimal as an approach for tactical, practical issues but doesn’t address strategic issues, despite its ambitions? I’m not sure about the answer to that, but its something I’m mulling at the moment…