Good Strategy/Bad Strategy: The difference and why it matters

Richard P. Rumelt


Definitely a classic text on the subject, and coming from a slightly broader angle than many other approaches. In common with other authors, Rumelt bases his strategy around identifying the challenges being faced; in contrast, instead of then moving straight into the realm of actions, he considers the values at work so that any actions are consonant with them. But perhaps the most revealing facet of this book is the coverage it gives to bad strategy, the confusions that arise when one mistakes a mission statement (or indeed a set of values) for a strategy, where the former are not executable and not targeted at any particular challenge. Should be required reading for anyone in a leadership role.

Finished on Sat, 12 Oct 2019 05:57:35 -0700.   Rating 4*/5*.

Riddle And The Knight

Giles Milton


It's surprising to read a book that goes into the detailed history of a book that I haven't read, but not to worry...

The Travels of Sir John Mandeville is a mediaeval travelogue unlike any other. It starts off well enough, as a guide-cum-memoir of a trip to the Holy Land in the mid 14th century. But then it continues, with the protagonist travelling to India, Java, China, and beyond, meeting and describing – in the same reasonable voice as previously – a range of people and creatures straight out of a mediaeval bestiary. The question has always been: what's going on? Is the whole thing a fraud? An elaborate satire? A prank? That these questions exist for what was, at one time, the single most-read book in the English language is a huge challenge.

Milton doesn't exactly nail the solution: that's probably impossible after all this time. But he does do some heroic research both in the archive and in the real world. In the former, he traces many of the original sources from which Mandeville (if indeed this is the author: even his identity is disputed and mysterious) derived some of his stories, and shows how he elaborated them far beyond what any mere copyist would do. In the latter he find confirmation for elements in the Travels that have been perplexing, including (for example) verifying that Mandeville's descriptions of certain statues in Constantinople, while now wrong, were correct for the dates he claimed to be there. Some of the most dramatic scenes occur in St Catherine's monastery in Sinai, difficult to reach even now, where Milton searches through Crusader graffiti looking for a Mandeville coat of arms, as well as viewing manuscripts that have remained untouched for over a thousand years.

Altogether this is literary history of the highest order. While it remains tantalisingly un-definitive, it adds extra layers to the reading of the Travels, which is at the top of my holiday reading list.

Finished on Tue, 20 Aug 2019 11:05:47 -0700.   Rating 5*/5*.

Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Tell You Everything You Need to Know About Global Politics

Tim Marshall


A concise discussion of geopolitics, by someone in a position to understand. Marshall brings years of political commentary to bear on how governments see, and respond, to geography – both their own and those of their potential rivals.

It's purely about the effects of geography on States' behaviours, which sometimes lends the book an almost nineteenth-century feel. There's no discussion of the possibly conflicting attitudes of large national and multinational companies, whose activities might be difficult for governments to steer. I suspect Marshall views States as still to dominant actors without actually saying such – and he may well be right, in the sense that the credible threat of force can trump other approaches. The arguments are quite compelling, and show how the forces that affect grand strategy haven't fundamentally changed since the days of the Great Game and earlier.

Finished on Mon, 05 Aug 2019 08:34:00 -0700.   Rating 4*/5*.

Lotharingia: A Personal History of Europe's Lost Country

Simon Winder


Lotharingia, the part of Europe lying between what are now the agreed cores of France and Germany, the part of the continent that doesn't readily fit into the national character of either country. This is a very small-scale history, full of anecdotes and insights as to the connections between the various actors and events that have criss-crossed this area. I read it shortly after reading The Shortest History of Germany, to which I think it makes a very agreeable companion and contrast while picking out a lot of the same themes, especially the difference between the eastern-oriented, Prussian and Hohenzollern Germany and the western-oriented Rhineland.

It's personal history, though, which means that the author's life breaks into the narrative quite intrusively. I've only given the book four stars because of this writing style, which detracted (for me) from the otherwise excellent research and observations.

Finished on Fri, 26 Jul 2019 05:04:28 -0700.   Rating 4*/5*.

Nervous States: How Feeling Took Over the World

William Davies


How did we end up where we are, with a seemingly unstoppable rejection of reasoned argument in favour of blatantly false – if somewhat reassuring – fantasy positions served up by charlatans? Davies presents a very convincing case, and some prescriptions for the future, that should be read by anyone who considers themselves to live in the world of objective reality – and especially those tasked with explaining that reality.

The essence of Davies' position boils down to the idea that there's been a change in the nature and purpose of information: that it has gone from being used as a way of understanding a shared reality to instead operating on that reality, with the significance of this change being that the latter requires neither global agreement on a set of facts nor any real persistence in time. It's perfectly possible to discover, act upon, and profit from something that them disappears without a trace, and this changes both what it means to be a fact and how these (perhaps purported) facts are presented: it doesn't matter if something is later falsified, since the purpose was not to state a permanent position but to achieve a timely objective.

Davies backs this proposition up with a deep-dive into military history, philosophy, and the emergence of the commercial internet: this is definitely a book fore the widely-ranging mind. His prescriptions are troubling to those of us who work in science: that we need to shed our public scruples and engage politically, not giving up the search for the objective but making sure that we use it to act on the world. In that sense he's supportive of events like the "March for Science" that were opposed by many scientists as a corruption of objectivity – and I have toi say that that's not something I wanted to hear, but that I find rather compelling.

Finished on Fri, 05 Jul 2019 06:16:34 -0700.   Rating 5*/5*.

New Moon (Luna #1)

Ian McDonald


What would living on the moon be like? How would the inhabitants relate to those left on earth? What would be the economics? The sociology?

There's more than a touch of Robert Heinlein's masterpiece The Moon is a Harsh Mistress here, updated for the twenty-first century. McDonald has the moon evolving an clan-based oligarchy that resembles fourteenth century Italy, but with some amazingly clever nods to the science and engineering needed to actually build a viable lunar civilisation, as well as for their social implications.

Finished on Fri, 05 Jul 2019 06:06:01 -0700.   Rating 4*/5*.

The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner

Daniel Ellsberg


Definitely lives up to its billing, with massive amounts of detail and close reasoning – too much, in fact, and this weakens arguments that it's meant to strengthen. But still as powerful an argument for disarmament as you'll ever encounter.

Finished on Thu, 06 Jun 2019 02:58:16 -0700.   Rating 2*/5*.


Tara Westover


A study of the effects of education as both liberating and disconnecting.

The family that the author describes is both harrowingly dysfunctional and strangely close-knit, which goes a long way to explaining how hard she found to draw herself away from it. She followed a charmed academic trajectory that many academics would kill for – Brigham Young University, then a scholarship and PhD from Cambridge, then a fellowship at Harvard – and I think it's a fair question as to whether she'd've been able to break away had she had a less exceptional start.

The overriding themes are easy to see, revolving around a desire (indeed, a need) for male relatives to control female behaviour. There are plenty of echoes of works like Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in CrisisHillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, but one thing that's distinctive about Westover's experience is that the fundamentalist position that her family adopts doesn't go far back: even her grandparents disagree with it, and it seems to be as much a product of her father's mental illness and mother's subservience as anything inherent in a strongly religious tradition. It's definitely one of the most challenging personal backgrounds I know of to have been successfully overcome.

Finished on Wed, 29 May 2019 09:20:46 -0700.   Rating 5*/5*.

The Three-Body Problem (Remembrance of Earth’s Past, #1)

Liu Cixin


Quite an astonishing book, combining science fiction with social commentary and Chinese history in a seamless and rather stunning way.

This book has some really quite visionary passages, drawing deeply on cultural history and the farther reaches of mathematical physics. It also has some resonances from the SF classics, especially (and perhaps surprisingly) The Forever War, with its central problem of how to fight a war in the face of travel times long enough to render your weaponry obsolete? Liu's solution is brilliant: find a way to stall your enemy's scientific progress, using both scientific and social weapons, with the latter also having eerie resonances in modern social-media commentaries. An excellent and thought-provoking start to a trilogy.

Finished on Thu, 16 May 2019 10:17:47 -0700.   Rating 4*/5*.