The Consuming Fire (The Interdependency, #2)

John Scalzi (2018)

4/5. Finished Saturday 12 October, 2019.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

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

Richard P. Rumelt (2011)

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.

4/5. Finished Saturday 12 October, 2019.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

How To

Randall Munroe (2019)

What happens when the writer of xkcd puts his mind to common everyday tasks? Hilarity, of course…. and as usual, a lot of fascinating physics.

I would place this in the middle of Munroe’s two books. It’s far better, funnier, and grown-up that Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words, but less fresh than What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions. For all that it’s still laugh-out-loud funny, grounded in solid physics (albeit in absurd ways), and manages somehow to change the way you might actually look at problems in the future.

4/5. Finished Saturday 12 October, 2019.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

The Riddle and the Knight

Giles Milton (1996)

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.

5/5. Finished Monday 12 August, 2019.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

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

Tim Marshall (2015)

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.

4/5. Finished Monday 5 August, 2019.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)