Archive for the ‘Book review’ Category

BeastThe Beast Side: Living and Dying While Black in America – D Watkins

Get ready to be deeply offended. No matter how genuine you may be about achieving racial equality and equal opportunity, you’ll feel the heat from the burning rage of David Watkins and you won’t like much of what he has to say.

His perspective is heavily jaundiced and his anger unremitting, understandably so given almost routine cop killings of black people in the most questionable circumstances.

But sadly, he undermines the best justification of the rightness of his views, with emotional rants over more sober rationality.

Take this outburst against a cop jailed for the killing of a young black man. “Hopefully, he’ll get butt- and face-fucked every night until he passes out from his own screams. I hope his anus contusions get stitched every day and re-ripped every night. I hope he wakes up in an ocean of his own blood…”

And so it goes on: Hardly Martin Luther King, and not helpful in efforts to bridge the divide between police and public, the privileged and the poor, black people and white people.

The chapter headed Fuck the National Anthem, is another case in point, though at least his rationale for this provocation is better explained.

Watkins’ invective is at times so extreme it seems almost designed to alienate the very people needed to rally to the cause; the rants show the depth of his frustration but won’t bring about the change he seeks.

Here’s an example: “A racist cop quickly arrived on the scene and helped himself to a young black target. He probably salivated at the notion of killing a black kid, probably dreaming about the awards, medals and Zimmerman love he’d receive as he aimed and squeezed”.

Not all cops are racists, not all cops are targeting black people, not all cops are out of control, not all cops are killers and to suggest they are immeasurably weakens the cause he espouses.

It’s a pity his ire is so absolute because he does have plenty to say and he needs to be listened to. For sure, he is saying what many people think and his aim is to “spark a national dialogue for change, challenging our elected officials and inspiring others to look deeper and to fight the underlying, systemic ills responsible for our pain”.

I reckon we’d all agree with that, I just question how it might be achieved. Inflammatory language only adds fuel to the flames and right now the fire risk is high.

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Will in the World – Stephen Greenblatt

Is there anything new to say about Shakespeare? After reading this piercingly smart assessment on how Shakespeare became Shakespeare I’d say emphatically: Yes!

Amid a void of verifiable information on the topic, an industry in academic analysis has flourished, some good, some weak, but all of it built on flimsy foundations and topped with much speculation.

The perceptiveness of this book comes from the author’s skillful and intelligent construction of arguments that give glimpses into the enigma of the Bard and his genius.

Greenblatt layers intimate knowledge of the plays with a scholarly understanding of the context in which they were written – lines, passages, scenes and whole plays come alive with new meaning.

While we have to accept that we’ll never fully know the man, the gift of this book lets us draw nearer to him, enriching our grasp of the events that shaped his talent and enhancing our appreciation of a body of literary work that has no equal.

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City

image1Matthew Desmond deep dives into the lives of some of the most wretched people in America and produces findings that are an affront to any civilized society, let alone the world’s richest

Tracking eight families through Milwaukee’s dumpiest neighborhoods we get a first-hand account of the misery and the grinding poverty of their existence.

The reasons why they are there and why they can’t break out are mired in complexity but their prospects are unremittingly grim. Nationwide, according to Desmond, there are millions more like them.

Lack of affordable housing with subsequent evictions, exploitation and ghettoization is the core problem and one Desmond believes should be at the top of America’s domestic policy agenda.

He makes a good case: Not having a roof over your head clearly perpetuates the cycle of suffering and hopelessness.

Had the book given more detailed attention to possible solutions I’d have given it five stars. As it is, there are a scant few pages in the epilogue vaguely outlining a universal housing voucher system and the need for greater legal help for tenants taken to court by landlords.

For anything to really change however, a massive shift in societal attitudes (to this largely black underclass)  is required and that’s a tall order. Still, it’s a start.

bryson2The Road to Little Dribbling – Bill Bryson Cantankerous in the nicest possible way, Britain’s favourite grumpy old man shows us in all our eccentricity, boorishness and surliness.

It’s impossible to take offence at his wry observations because at heart he’s an admiring Anglophile who finds much to amuse in our foibles and foolishness.

Get him on pet topics of sullen service, dog shit on pavements and littering though, and he reveals an entirely different side to his character. He’s a grammar Nazi too, so watch your punctuation.

For the most part it’s a journey in which he finds much to like, an extended love letter to his adopted country.

There isn’t a landscape in the world more lovely to behold, he declares, and suggests it might be Britain’s most glorious achievement.

Britain, he judges, is calm, measured and quite grown up, a nation that appreciates small pleasures and is made up of “the only people in the world who become genuinely excited when presented with a hot beverage and a small plain biscuit”.

Under cover of advancing age, he does a nice line in bafflement at the world around him and incomprehension at living in a country full of celebrities whose “names I don’t know and talents I cannot discern”.

He’s an ideal travelling companion with a sharp eye, an inquisitive mind and an opinion on everything. He’s probably seen more of the British Isles than anyone who lives there – and still manages to like us.

dillenA Stratford Story: Including The Dillen and Mary, After the Queen

Imagine warming yourself round a log fire, flames flickering, sap hissing, wood spitting and being carried off to another world on the rustic dialect of a withered little man with a gleam in his eye and the gift of the gab.

George Hewins is The Dillen, the runt of the litter, a born storyteller who lived in such straightened circumstances that he and his wife had to share a bed with his mother-in-law yet still managed to conceive eight children.

The story of his hardscrabble life in my home town, Stratford-on-Avon, Warwickshire, covers the period between 1878 and the 1920s and is derived from a series of audio recordings made by his grandson’s wife, Angela Hewins, over a three-year period.

As she says, she’s added some h’s and omitted some repetitions but the grammar, the contractions and the speech patterns are still there and if you’re familiar with the Stratford accent, you can almost hear George speaking.

It’s this, George’s voice, George’s perspective, that give power to the narrative. It’s part oral history, part social history, and part memoir of poverty by someone who lived it, not just witnessed it. Above all it’s a thoroughly absorbing read.

From the off George relates how perilous his start in life was, how an old chap had told him of a man called Womack: “‘E sold your mother some medicine to get rid o’ you.”

Womack was “an ordinary working chap who made up pills and medicines for folks as couldn’t afford the doctor or chemist.”

George’s mother Emmie, then 18 and unmarried, was sent to him by her lover Tom Farr and “as soon as she’d took a couple o’ swigs of Womack’s medicine Emmie stopped fretting. She knowed it would work, like a spell, make the babby vanish; that’s what Tom said and he was always right.”

Not this time he wasn’t. He didn’t hang around and nor did Emmie, leaving George to be brought up by his mother’s aunt Cal.

What follows is a life of grinding poverty. George and his family live from hand to mouth. Work is scarce, wages are depressed and earnings sporadic. Rent arrears and eviction are ever-present fears surpassed only by the terrifying awfulness of the workhouse, the last port of the utterly destitute, where even dignity is taken.

It’s grim, for sure, but in the telling it’s not depressing. George the raconteur laces his tale with bawdy anecdotes and black humor. The story of how Tommy Taters got his nickname had me laughing out loud and George even manages to make light of a war wound he suffered after going over the top in 1917.

Caught in No Man’s Land, wounded in the hip by a shell burst, his officer also injured, George tells how a German came up behind them: “They was coming from behind! Captain Edwards saw him and shot him with his revolver, shot him from where he lay. He fell dead on me. But not afore he’d stuck his bayonet in my arse.”

George lost his ‘crown jewels’ in that encounter but not his sense of humor. His cheerful optimism lifts the book from being a bleak plod through the worst of times to an important record of life among those on the bottom rung of society, an authentic voice that is seldom captured.

lethalLethal Generosity: Contextual Technology and the Competitive Edge – Shel Israel

Let me say from the outset: Most adverts suck and I hate being marketed at. There’s a special place in hell for people who pollute my digital stream with pop-ups.

And for creators of pre-roll commercials that play unprompted, I have reservations for you in Hieronymus Bosch corner where you’ll be assured of extra special attention.

Given how much data I’ve surrendered and the liberties taken with it you, the marketing and advertising people, really should be doing better but old habits die hard.The banners you place are as welcome as wasps at a picnic and yet you persist with your poorly-targeted petitions urging me to click, to endorse, to buy, items of which I have no need, nor interest.

When you take people’s money and use it in this way how do you convince them that it’s good for business? It escapes me. If the messaging subliminally enters my head at all, it registers as the don’t-touch-this-with-a-bargepole kind.

Happily there’s a shake-out on the way and digital dinosaurs that use new technology to deliver old marketing methods will be flushed away with the detritus they promote.

In Shel Israel’s latest book, Lethal Generosity, he declares that the balance of power is shifting from sellers to buyers and “traditional marketing, even in digital form, often damages the brand trust it attempts to establish”. Halleluiah!

In his previous publication, Age of Context, co-written with technologist Robert Scoble, much of Israel’s emphasis was on connected data using time, place and context to deliver better customer experiences.

This sequel continues that theme but looks more closely at how technology and social change affects retailers and other public-facing businesses. Get it right and customers become loyal brand advocates, get it wrong and the results can be devastating.

Successful bricks and mortar businesses have always known this as evinced by the maxim: “The customer is always right”.

In the UK, department store John Lewis stands behind its slogan “Never Knowingly Undersold”, Marks & Spencer identifies with value and a quibble-free returns policy and Nordstrom is known for its exceptional service

“Treat customers as relationships to open, rather than as sales to close”

Good as they are, success in the past is no guarantee of success in the future. Shifting social and demographic trends plus new devices and new expectations mean upstart enterprises can swiftly undermine the foundations of even established businesses.

Just seven years after its launch in 2007 Airbnb became the world’s biggest hotelier, yet it doesn’t own a single hotel, or room, or bed and has fewer staff than a modest hotel chain.

It’s a software strategy eating into the profits of bricks and mortar businesses, one that The Economist predicts will cut hotel revenues by 10% by 2016.

Israel warns companies to actively listen, to treat customers as relationships to open, rather than as sales to close, and to treat them in a generously memorable way – even if it means sending them to a rival.

It’s easy to write about, much harder to do, and there are multiple examples of behaviours from companies that he thinks are on the right track and others that are getting it wrong.

Uber is a good case in point. At one stage, Uberize Everything was Scoble’s suggested title for the book but, wisely, given the controversies around the brand, Israel thought better of it.

Still, Uber stands as an example of a company that began with customer service at the heart of its operation and one which has delivered new norms of expectation from cab users.

There’s a really good segment on why millennials matter – they’re digital natives, the largest age-based demographic, born in the age of context and influenced by peers more than brand messages – and a  follow-on chapter about kieretsus, a Japanese term for interlocking relationships between businesses which millennials favor.

Beaconing customers, frictionless interaction, contactless marketplaces and human-centered design all lead on to what Israel calls: The Road to Pinpoint, where “close, personal service is scalable on a global level for the first time”.

Never mind the marketing-speak, for our world to become that personal we’re going to have to get comfortable with much greater levels of intrusion, data surrender and secondary uses of that data. Who owns it, what can be done with it and where should the boundaries be drawn around individual rights to privacy?

The answers to those questions are likely to be different for everyone and will be traded between perceived usefulness of a service and the amount of information required to be given up for it.

Israel covers a lot of ground in his dash towards the future and doesn’t dwell on this since it had an airing in the Age of Context book.  But with so many data breaches, so much hackery and so much suspicion about data mining, breezing over this topic gives the book an unrealistically optimistic outlook. It’s a safe bet that the spammers and scammers, crooks and chancers, won’t be far behind.

No matter, it’s still a great starting point for businesses to re-evaluate what they stand for and to look at ways they can deepen customer relationships, gain market share and increase profitability.

Whether you’re won over by the conversational tone and largely anecdotal evidence will likely depend on:

  1. How closely your views align with his
  2. Your technophile/technophobe tendencies
  3. What your peers say

The last word goes to the author whose final paragraph reads: “Entrenched brands may shrug all of this off. They will point out that they are doing just fine, that this is just a prolonged down cycle, and they will keep doing what they have always done. They will be the earliest victims of lethal generosity.”


The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey Oregon trail

You can go a long way with enthusiasm: Two thousand miles in the case of journalist, historian and adventurer Rinker Buck.

His covered wagon epic following in the wheel ruts of America’s 19th Century pioneers is an absorbing mix of trail tales, mule-wrangling and brotherly clashes.

Where Rink is measured and cautious, his younger sibling Nick is gung-ho and excitable. Where Rink is mannered and polite, Nick is brash and vulgar. It’s the bickering between them that provides much of the color.

There’s plenty of humor, too, in the characters of the mules where only one is reliably steady. The second beast exhibits the airs of a prom queen and the third a skittishness bordering on crazy.

They’re a handful for sure and potential dangers are ever present. Items as innocuous expansion joints on a bridge, or a plastic bag snagged on wire and snapping in the breeze, risk spooking the animals with risky consequences for the four-ton rig.

The history of the trail is richly fascinating and it’s here where the book is at its best.

Far from the migration being a deliberate movement, Rink paints details of the varied reasons for joining the exodus: a country riven with clashes between ethnic populations for jobs and space, bitter religious denominational spats and an economy lurching from boom to bust.

Flooding the West with pioneers also suited the purpose of Congress in overwhelming Britain’s lucrative but thinly-staffed fur-trading empire managed by the Hudson Bay Company. And, of course, there was gold fever.

There are some great anecdotes about how the early pioneers were scammed by merchants into oversupplying their wagons. Heavyweight items dumped within the first few miles were recovered by traders and sold again to the next gullible group.

Animals abandoned in the morning by one wagon train were shot and eaten in the evening by members of the one that followed, using utensils that had also been left behind.

Pollution, disease and death were constant companions of the 400,000 or so who made the journey. The Hollywood version would have you believe most were killed by marauding Indians, but filthy water, questionable hygiene and dysentery took the highest toll. And native people, lacking immunity to diseases brought in by the settlers, were cut down as well.

Rink isn’t shy about confronting myths of old, or those being created now, reserving especial odium for the Mormons’ renaming of Devil’s Gate to Martin’s Cove as part of the church’s “parable of noble suffering”.

There are instances where the book descends into mawkish, Waltonesque territory that I could have done without. This is where Rink sheds wagonloads of Catholic guilt about not being at his dying father’s bedside, of always being a disappointment to him and of his own general feelings of inadequacy.

However, movie executives will, I’m sure, be champing at the bit for a family friendly version of this modern-day glimpse into How The West Was Really Won.

20288812572_b85c321e3e_mShadowplay: The hidden beliefs and coded politics of William Shakespeare

Shakespeare can be tough to decipher at the best of times and now there’s another layer of complexity to think about.

Fortunately, code-breaking author Clare Asquith is an excellent interpreter and fashions a page-turning thriller from a tangled web of period politics.

Why did the Bard quit writing and return to Stratford at the height of his powers? Is it credible to think that the greatest playwright of the age would have nothing to say about the turbulent times in which he lived? What did Shakespeare believe in and to whom did his sympathies lie?

The answers to these questions don’t come easy. The concealed messages and ambiguities have eluded scholars for more than 400 years and modern day academic skeptics abound.

It’s the breadth and depth of Asquith’s research in support of her conclusions that make the book so compelling. Little is known about the man, but her painstaking and rigorous inquiries give great insight into neglected areas of an already well documented era.

Shakespeare was living in a virtual police state, an England where political beliefs weren’t just cerebral debating points: Where you stood on an issue, what you said and what you did had consequences – and the wrong answers could cost you dear.

Coded messages

Was your ultimate allegiance to the church or state, monarch or to God? Were you Catholic or Protestant, Jesuit or Puritan? Where did you go? Who did you see? What did you do? Where did your loyalties lie?

Walsingham’s spy network was constantly on alert for plots from abroad and dissidence from within. An allegation, a rumor, a betrayal, any whiff of insurrection could lead to dispossession, torture and a grisly execution.

It’s within this context that Asquith unravels the coded messages that have become even more opaque through the passage of time.

Few of Shakespeare’s contemporaries are read today and, as she explains, the sophisticated elite then were better versed in the classics than many modern theatregoers; they were attuned to allegories, allusions and hidden meanings.

One court dramatist of the time described his play as a Trojan horse: an elaborate gift concealing an unpalatable message.

The subversive genius of Shakespeare was to get his message through to a Catholic audience while concealing the true meaning from the rest. This was a dangerous tightrope to be on and one he walked for many years until, it seems, he had a major fall from grace.

SoilThe Soil Will Save Us, Kristin Ohlson 

At last, a book offering a glimmer of hope to pierce the all-pervading environmental gloom!

Author Ohlson digs deep into topics like soil science, mob-herding, no-till farming and cover crop husbandry to outline how we might yet undo the damage we’ve done to our ecosystem.

Better care of the land means healthier crops and animals, fewer flash floods, greater drought resistance, fewer chemical inputs, fewer issues with run-off and – best of all – massive amounts of carbon sequestration.

Modern agriculture, she says, has led to the loss of 80 billion tons of carbon from the world’s soils and her hope is that scientists, researchers and agrarian free-thinkers, working with nature, can put it back.

Much of what’s written in the book has its roots in far earlier layers of knowledge. As Ohlson points out, Pliny the Elder knew all about composting.

Pastoralists have long practiced crop rotation, green manuring, animal grazing and companion planting and many an old-time gardener grew up with the mantra “feed the soil, not the plant”.

What’s new is our grasp of the complex microbiological activity going on beneath our feet.  Full understanding remains a massive challenge, but the progress of soil science is starting to yield answers – and some spectacular results.

Examples of regenerative farming, where overworked land has been carefully managed and restored to rich earth, are as compelling as they are heartwarming.

And the people behind it – the scientists, foodies and farmers harnessing partnerships between plants and microorganisms – are the book’s heroes.

Up against them are skeptical minds and the political and financial might of Big Ag. In 2009 the sector spent $133m on lobbying, that’s almost as much as the nation’s defense contractors, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

If the odds look unfavorable, then Ohlson suggests a grass roots campaign waged on the unlikely battleground of America’s lawns could be a turning point.

“What we do with our urban green matters, whether it’s in our yards or in our parks or even our highway median strips,” says Olson. And lawns are the largest irrigated crop in the country, taking up three times as much space as corn.

It’s going to take much more than that, of course, but it’s a start. And with farmers and ranchers trying to work the land in a more enlightened way, the seeds of the next agricultural revolution have been sown.

Postscript: The Guardian’s George Monbiot is highly sceptical of claims made by one of the book’s heroes

creativityinc

How do you generate creativity in teams and individuals? What can you do to stop smart people from making decisions that take your company off the rails? How do you sustain success without becoming formulaic and stale?

Pixar boss Ed Catmull constantly recycles these questions to keep his multi-award winning business at the cutting edge of the movie industry.

The company provides rich pickings for students of business management; its staff have no contracts, stability is not a goal and failure, while not exactly welcomed, is recognized as a consequence of trying to do something new.

It has the formula for success bottled and corked. How does the leadership team do it? And, more importantly, how do they keep doing it?

It certainly hasn’t been an overnight success and Catmull acknowledges the debt owed to Steve Jobs who kept the company going in the early days by pumping in more than $50m of his own money.

Even Jobs’ enthusiasm had limits, he recalls, and cites how he tried to sell Pixar on three occasions, including once to Microsoft who offered $90m when he was seeking $120m. Who knows what the outcome might have been had that deal gone through?

It was Toy Story that provided the company’s breakthrough moment and subsequent hits like hit Finding Nemo, Wall-E, Monsters Inc, The Incredibles, Cars, Up, Ratatouille, and A Bug’s Life are now as deeply implanted in popular culture as were the Disney classics that were the inspiration for Catmull to try making computer-animated movies himself.

Bizarrely, it was the very success of Toy Story that opened Catmull’s eyes to a deep rift in the company – one that challenged his management style, provoked a period of deep introspection and became the catalyst for the rejuvenation of his career.

While gearing up for the company’s second film, A Bug’s Life, he learned that those who had worked on Toy Story had found clashes between the creative and production departments to be “a nightmare” and were reluctant to sign on to work on another film at Pixar.

Production departments tasked with making sure the movie was delivered on time and on budget were seen by artists and technical staff as interfering micromanagers and were characterized as so much sand in the gears.

“I was floored. How had we missed this? My door had always been open!” says Catmull.

The answer is codified in one of his guiding principles: “The healthiest organizations are made up of departments whose agendas differ but whose goals are interdependent. If one agenda wins, we all lose.”

It’s hardly the stuff of bumper sticker wisdom but it is the distillation of a much deeper period of contemplation about why, over a five-year period, not one production manager had come forward to express anger at the internal conflicts.

In the world of film, crew members who complained tended not to get future work so people simply kept their mouths shut. There was also a sense that they were involved in a groundbreaking project and the good parts outweighed the bad so it was worth putting up with.

As he explored the issue further he also came to understand that hidden fears course through all businesses breaking new ground and that: “A company’s communication structure should not mirror its organizational structure. Everybody should be able to talk to anybody.”

By bringing down barriers that forced staff to go through “proper channels” first, Catmull unleashed a wave of change that brought people together and spurred action. Open communication helped resolve production snags, gave individuals a greater sense of responsibility and bolstered their sense of a unified purpose.

At the same time, he also recognized that “a motivated, workaholic workforce pulling together to make a deadline could destroy itself if left unchecked” so he made changes that reinforced his notion of work-life balance being good for employees and good for the company.

But more than anything else it was his requirement for absolute candor from staff that laid the foundation on which the culture of creativity is built.

Through regular Brainstrust meetings, Pixar’s people are charged with rooting out mediocrity and driving excellence, a process that is simple enough: Put smart, passionate people in a room and get them to thrash out problems in an atmosphere that requires frank exchanges of views.

The hard part is managing the dynamics that go with the gatherings, keeping the focus on the end product, not on personalities, and the need for constant vigilance to make the discussions effective.

At the core of Catmull’s business philosophy is his belief that trust cannot exist without candor and that without trust, creative collaboration is impossible.

“You can’t eliminate the blocks to candor once and for all. The fear of saying something stupid and looking bad, of offending someone or being intimidated, or retaliating or being retaliated against – they all have a way of reasserting themselves, even once you think they’ve been vanquished. And when they do, you must address them squarely.”

There are, of course, a great many other components in Pixar’s success story, such as:

  • Always try to hire people who are smarter than you. Always take a chance on better, even if it seems like a potential threat.
  • It is not a manager’s job to prevent risks. It is the manager’s job to make it safe to take them.
  • The desire for everything to run smoothly is a false goal – it leads to measuring people by the mistakes they make rather than by their ability to solve problems.

But it’s careful listening, open communications and an atmosphere that encourages relentless improvement that shapes Pixar’s template for success.

Creativity Inc, Overcoming The Unseen Forces That Stand In The Way of True Inspiration, by Ed Catmull with Amy Wallace