📚 Re-educated

I’ve just finished reading Lucy Kellaway’s excellent book on how she went through fundamental life changes in her late 50s, leaving her decades-long job at the Financial Times to become a secondary school teacher as well as separating from her husband, moving house and embracing grey hair.

The chapters of the book give different slices through the author’s life and experiences, kept fresh through the angles that they take. In one chapter late in the book we are given what I assume to be a ‘typical’ day in her life as a teacher, from when she wakes up until she’s back in bed again.

The book is life-affirming and relatable, with a few nuggets of wisdom in its pages:

Most of them are getting the questions right. I used to think that asking kids things they already knew was pointless. But it’s not: it puts them in a good mood for learning new things.

Kellaway reflects on her own past: her parents and her education, as well as the way in which she brought up her own children. I found myself nodding in recognition to her experiences both as a parent:

Subsequently I discovered that size of house cuts both ways. It may have kept us safe from the world outside, but it also kept us safe from each other. As the children grew older and became teenagers an average evening at number 52 would not find the family amiably playing Scrabble or even gathering passively around the TV to watch Friends. After a quick supper cooked by me – soggy leek-and-bacon pasta or chicken nuggets and broccoli – we dispersed.

…and as someone who wants to focus on specialising and refining their performance in their current job, not focusing on promotion:

My position, and that of about two-thirds of the Now Teachers, is quite different. We have no desire to advance above the bottom rung of the ladder that we are now squarely standing on. We own our own property and don’t need to prove ourselves in the same way she does. We don’t want to be promoted, but only want to be responsible for our own classes and for becoming better at what we do. That feels quite enough. This resistance to promotion makes us both happier and harder to manage.

But the best parts are about her experiences as a teacher, and what she has come to learn — and to question — over the past few years:

For all its strictness, the school does give some latitude to teachers on how they teach. Yet this is provisional, and puts the onus on me. I need to prove that I can get good results – and I have absolutely no idea if I can. Is it possible to teach both the world and the syllabus? If not, is there a trade-off? If children get one grade lower because they have spent a lot of time thinking about broader things, how much does it matter?

I enjoy planning lessons but it strikes me as a shocking waste of time. Why aren’t there national lesson plans designed by the best teachers in the country and updated every year? I spend the next 20 minutes hastily scrabbling around for material and putting together a slap-dash PowerPoint.

Two years later, I have a clearer idea of what it is I’m trying to do. Changing lives turns out not to be about making instant transformations – it is about hard slog and tiny, incremental improvements. This realisation has changed my own life – or at least how I teach, and the sort of teacher I want to be.

Since that day the penny has dropped: the best way of helping Alicia is not to try to make economics a fun show, it is to get her to pass her exam. If it is a teacher’s job to open doors, those doors, under the present regime, are GCSEs. When I started teaching, I thought exams were a necessary evil. I still think that. I hate the way schools talk of them as if they are the purpose of education, when in fact they are merely (flawed) evidence that you’ve acquired some. I despised the government’s response to Covid in schools, where it prioritised the year groups taking exams, as if the education of the other years somehow didn’t matter. I despair at the way teachers spend as much time teaching exam technique as the subject itself. Yet despite this I, too, am teaching the exam first and economics second.

Recommended.

📚 Violent Borders

I love it when a book makes me think about something in a new way. I love it even more when it challenges something so fundamental that I didn’t realise that there could be a different way of seeing things.

We grow up believing that national borders have historical, profound meaning to them. But they are political lines on a map, put there long after people first started living in a place. The premise of this book is that the creation and existence of a border, particularly a political or physical border, is a violent act.

The birth of modern states

The book notes that the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 at the end of the Thirty-Years’ War was when the principle of modern nation state sovereignty was established:

The treaties that ended the war, collectively known as the Peace of Westphalia, represented a break with the past in several significant ways. Historian Peter Wilson writes that “Westphalia’s significance lies not in the number of conflicts it tried to resolve, but in the methods and ideals it applied.” The resolution of the conflict set in motion the enclosure of the majority of the surface of the earth as state territories within borders. (p105)

Fast forward to today. The United Nations is an organisation that “remains the one place on Earth where all the world’s nations can gather together, discuss common problems, and find shared solutions that benefit all of humanity.” However, despite having the word ‘nations’ in its title, is actually concerned with _states_1:

Although nation and state are often used interchangeably, they refer to different entities. A state is a political institution with a bureaucracy, territory, borders, and the sovereign right to create and enforce laws. A nation is a group of people who perceive that they have a shared connection to each other and to a land that entitles them to political control over that territory. There are many examples of groups such as the Kurds that consider themselves to be nations but do not control an independent state. The UN serves to institutionalize existing states as the legitimate sovereign authorities in bounded territories.
[…]
States have to be recognized by other states to join the UN; by joining, a state agrees to recognize the boundaries and sovereignty of all the other member states. (p155)

This creates a number of problems. For example, climate change isn’t something that can be dealt with by each state alone — the actions of one state has an impact on all of the others. States such as Somaliland are not recognised by the majority of other states and therefore have no ‘seat at the table’ at the UN. And there are various people who find themselves trapped, divided or disenfranchised by the states they find themselves in. The Kurds are a persecuted minority group spanning Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria, and the Rohingya people are a stateless ethnic group who are not recognised in Myanmar, where they reside. Neither are directly represented at the UN.

Separating people by drawing lines on a map

The partition of India in 1947 into India and Pakistan eventually led to East Pakistan becoming Bangladesh.

Bangladesh literally means “the country of the Bengalis,” but its independence created an odd situation in which more than a third of all Bengali speakers live across the border in India, in the state of West Bengal. Furthermore, Kolkata, the cultural, economic, and political heart of Bengal for centuries, is located outside the country of the Bengalis, which is something akin to Paris not being in France. (p58)

The initial partition in 1947 by Cyril Radcliffe saw Bengal sliced in two with little regard for the people who I lived there. From Wikipedia:

Radcliffe, a man who had never been east of Paris, was given the chairmanship of the two boundary committees set up with the passing of the Indian Independence Act. Radcliffe was faced with the colonial duty (goreyaan de kamm) of drawing the borders for the new nations of Pakistan and India in a way that would leave as many Sikhs and Hindus in India and Muslims in Pakistan as possible. He was given only 5 weeks to complete the job. Radcliffe submitted his partition map on 9 August 1947, which tore apart Punjab and Bengal almost in half. The new boundaries were formally announced on 17 August 1947 – three days after Pakistan’s independence and two days after India became independent of the United Kingdom

Although the cultural links between the two political nations are strong, travel between the areas now known as Bangladesh and West Bengal can be perilous due to the militarisation of the border:

While the borders of the European Union and the United States have resulted in tens of thousands of deaths in the past decade as migrants are funneled to more dangerous crossing points, the India-Bangladesh border has the highest number of deaths at the hands of a state security service, India’s Border Security Force (BSF). From 2000 to 2015, the BSF killed more than a thousand Bangladeshi civilians along the border. (p56)

The book goes into detail about the killing of Felani Khatun, a 15-year-old girl who attempted to cross the border using a ladder. She had been travelling from West Bengal to Bangladesh with her father. He had made it across, but she was shot by the BSF and left hanging on the fence for hours.

Erecting borders between nation states and policing people who pass through them is a relatively new invention. From Wikipedia:

In the later part of the nineteenth century and up to World War I, passports were not required, on the whole, for travel within Europe, and crossing a border was a relatively straightforward procedure. Consequently, comparatively few people held passports.

During World War I, European governments introduced border passport requirements for security reasons, and to control the emigration of people with useful skills. These controls remained in place after the war, becoming a standard, though controversial, procedure.

From the book:

The International Organization for Migration suggests that “the relatively low number of migrant deaths before 1990 may be related to the fact that it used to be much easier to reach Europe by regular means, even in the absence of official government authorization to immigrate.” Prior to 1974, for example, France allowed migrants to come and go freely. Spain allowed North Africans to enter freely until 1991. (p26)

Over time, borders have become increasingly militarised. The barriers themselves are violent, either directly through barbed wire and armed patrols, or indirectly due to people finding ways to avoid them through other, more perilous routes.

The boundaries that enclosed land into private property and established state sovereignty within territories and seas are treated as if they have always existed eternally, but even the oldest political borders are only a few hundred years old; most are only a few decades old. They are not the result of a transparent sorting of historical peoples into their own territories. Instead, borders are an efficient system for maintaining political control of an area through agreements and documents that are backed up with the threat of violence. (p117)

The concept of land ownership

Many years ago I spent a week visiting the Infosys office campus in Pune, India. The site was as lush and beautiful as a pristine golf course, and this extended out to the vivid green grass that covered the roundabout at the entrance to the complex. One day we pulled up outside and saw an array of people and grazing animals on the roundabout. My driver explained that these were nomadic people. It got me thinking that their concept of sharing the land that they have lived on for hundreds of years had run up against the privatisation of the space all around them.

My wife and I own the land that our house sits on. We paid for it, and a title deed exists that says it is ours. But this concept is bizarre — why should this particular chunk of land be any more mine than it is for any other person that is born anywhere else on the planet? The concept of land ownership helps to keep things orderly and organised, but it is an illusion.

The concept of private land ownership is relatively new, enabled by modern cartography:

During the Middle Ages, the modern idea of private property did not exist. A wide range of different relationships between kings, vassals, peasants, and the church regulated land use. In medieval England, the king claimed sovereignty over all of the land and leased it out to vassals, or lords, who pledged military aid to the king and provided a small portion of their harvests as a tax. All of the land was ultimately the king’s. (p94)
[…]
The significance of these changes cannot be overstated. Up until the sixteenth century in England, land was conceived of as a space that might be controlled by someone but did not necessarily belong to anyone besides the king. But once surveyors and mapmakers codified the rural agricultural land of England, it became less a vast space people knew through local experience and more a disciplined commodity, captured on paper and administered from a distance. It was no longer necessary to have local knowledge; land was legible to anyone who could see the map—an elite group that was often limited to the monarchy, the lords, and their agents. (p97)

Differentiating between refugees, asylum seekers and economic migrants

Refugees move from one place to another to escape oppression and war. The current invasion of Ukraine by Russia has already displaced millions of people who are fleeing the conflict.

Some people move to seek asylum. It may be that they come from places in the world that do not accept them. For example, ILGA World’s map of sexual orientation laws shows a spectrum of policies across the globe, from acceptance of same-sex marriages to the death penalty for being homosexual. It is clear why some people may wish to move to a more accepting society and escape the danger in the place that they live.

Migrants may also move for economic reasons. Why should someone be forced to be trapped in poverty based on where they happened to be born? The book makes a very good point that we don’t do this within a nation. It’s complicated, but we can look to challenge why do this between nations.

Consider this example. The US state of Maryland has the highest median household income at approximately $70,000 per year, double the rate of the neighboring state of West Virginia. Furthermore, West Virginia is often stereotyped as having a “country” culture that does not match the progressive Northeast. Maryland and West Virginia share a border, so imagine if the governor of Maryland decided to build a wall, set up internal checkpoints, and begin to deport the poorer and culturally different people of West Virginia. This sounds ludicrous-mostly because, within countries, the right to move trumps the rights of local political communities to limit access. No matter how much Maryland might want to protect its economic wealth, jobs, and culture from the poor, unemployed, and culturally different residents of West Virginia, it cannot. Nevertheless, it seems normal that countries can do the exact same thing for the same reasons—to protect jobs, wealth, and culture. That sense of normalcy needs to be disrupted. (p172)

I know that I am incredibly lucky to have been born in the UK. This good fortune means that my potential economic prosperity is substantially better than the majority of people in the world. But it was an accident of birth.

Reading about this reminded me of How To be An Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi. In his book, Kendi puts forward his view that someone is either racist or antiracist. Being ‘not racist’ — opting out of engaging with racism or ignoring it — is actually racist, as it perpetuates the imbalances that are already present. Borders have a similar effect to racism in that they keep the economic imbalances going. Allowing migrants to come and go freely would do something to rebalance wealth and prosperity:

The true source of the crisis is that movement restrictions at borders continue to allow states to contain the poor and protect the wealth and privilege of their populations. (p28)

It boils down to this:

The borders do not just exist on the land. The lack of a safe, legitimate way to enter a country means that people will take the alternative. It is estimated that one out of every four people that attempts to enter the EU by boat dies on route, giving the EU the deadliest border in the world. People do not consider make this perilous journey lightly.

This reality is captured in the powerful poem “Home” by British Somali poet Warsan Shire:

you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land

no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear
saying—
leave,
run away from me now
i don’t know what i’ve become
but i know that anywhere
is safer than here.
(p25)

Things that we think will never change, can change

The book strikes a hopeful note for the future, putting our current system of borders in context of other things that have dramatically changed in the recent past:

The system of states, borders, and resource enclosures is embedded in our culture and our way of life and permeates many aspects of our existence, to the point that it is difficult to imagine life outside of it. But the past two hundred years have included major social changes that were previously unthinkable as people have collectively resisted injustices in the world, including slavery, colonialism, lack of universal suffrage, and South Africa’s apartheid system. Today we take it for granted that these practices were unjust and it was only a matter of time before they collapsed, although at one point change seemed impossible. The current system of borders is no different. (p163)

This book is fascinating and well-written. Thoroughly recommended.


  1. Perhaps this misnomer is due to the fact that ‘United States’ was already taken? 

📚 Why Workplace

A friend of mine recently handed me a hard copy of this free book from Leesman, the workplace consultancy firm. The writing is very considered and insightful, and the book does a great job of marketing the company as experts in their field.

It told me what I already know about open plan offices and emphasises that we must think about the quality of the time spent between collaborating.

If you are mainly trying to focus on individual work, or need to be on calls all day, an open plan office is unlikely to be as good as being in a dedicated home working space. At home, one-on-one meetings are a breeze — I just join the call at the scheduled time. In the office I have to find a meeting room, take my various devices there and get myself set up. It’s a little thing but it adds to the friction of the day.

I really like the emphasis on taking a bottom-up research-based approach to understanding who your people are and what they do, as the same setup will not be universally good for everyone:

Recent analysis by Leesman across a sample of 860,476 employees showed that 56% of respondents will select ‘collaborating on focused work’ as part of their role and 36% say they ‘collaborate on creative work’. But go further with the granular analysis of ‘we activities’ and ‘me activities’ and a mere 3% have roles where their selected mix of activities would have them categorised as highly collaborative.

In contrast, 19% have highly individual work profiles. When in the office, employees working in more collaborative roles have a better experience than those in more individual roles. But from home the opposite happens: those in highly individual roles have the better experience, while those in highly collaborative roles have the least positive.

It also reminded me of Liz Stokoe’s point that “good communication depends on good communicators — regardless of modality.”

But don’t be distracted by the overhyped talk of serendipitous ‘water cooler moments’. In the average office, you should expect there to be as much destructive gossip and toxic debate happening there, as there is the exchange of sparky ideas that trigger your next market disrupting solution. Engaged employees gathering at the water cooler is great. Actively disengaged employees gathering there is not.

The book emphasises that we need to be clear on how ‘productivity’ is defined. Working longer hours is not by itself a productivity gain:

A note of caution though on reported productivity gains. There is much discussion around the perceived productivity gain being a result of employees working during the time they might have commuted to an office, effectively extending their working day. Whether this truly represents an equitable productivity gain is highly questionable.

Productivity is defined as a ratio between the output volume and the volume of inputs, so more hours spent delivering more output is no improvement at all. Employees gifting you their commuting hours is not sustainable and remember their hours cost you way more in salaries than does the space you previously used to accommodate them. So as the sense of crisis response lessens and those employees progressively withdraw those commuting hours, expect those outputs to go back to nearer where they once were. If employees were suddenly rejoicing at halving the time taken to complete twice the work, that would be a different story. They are not.

As per the title, the emphasis of the book is to encourage leaders to think about why staff would want to be in your office. Are the trade-off of the costs and experience of commuting, versus the experience when they are there, worth it?

Each organisation will be different, and there will be different needs for different people within a firm. It makes sense to think of people’s homes as an extension of the office, with their home working space (if they have one) being conducive to different types of work.

One thing that has struck me as absent from all of the narrative about returning to the office are the needs and experiences of people that work in highly dispersed teams. I keep hearing that we have to get back to the office to keep our culture and collaboration going. However, at the moment half of my immediate colleagues with whom I collaborate and work with on a day-to-day basis aren’t in the same country. My team are responsible for the technology in five offices around the globe, only one of which is in the UK. We are unlikely to ever be all in the same space at the same time.

Back when I was working for a bank that had a much bigger presence in London than my current employer, colleagues were located across the City in buildings that could be a 15 minute walk away from each other. Some days could have intra-day commutes of an hour or more spent shuttling between offices. My time there pre-dated mass-market desktop videoconferencing, so I assume that the intra-day commute is now a thing of the past. But it means that there are many people who are spending most of their time in meetings with people that could be in a building next door, in their own home, or halfway around the world.

With our own return to the office pilot, I’ve found that on the days when there is a reason to be in the office — doing physical IT infrastructure work or being present for a ‘town hall’-style meeting — it has been great to be there. I’ve even enjoyed the commute, blocking the unmasked fellow commuters from my mind and using the time to focus on my writing hobby. But not all days are like this. A day spent in the office doing work and joining meetings that I could more effectively and efficiently accomplished at home feels illogical.

There isn’t yet a manual that tells you how to best approach the challenges for your own specific organisation, and this book won’t solve your problems. But it is rich in factors to consider and offers some jumping off points for much deeper thinking.

📚 Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters by John Steinbeck

This is a wonderful companion to the East of Eden novel. I am so glad I read it straight after, as I could still recall exactly the chapters and characters that Steinbeck refers to in his notes.

All of the notes are addressed to Pascal Covici, Steinbeck’s editor. The author uses them in order to warm up for the day’s writing:

You must think I waste an awful lot of time on these notes to you but actually it is the warm-up period. It is the time of drawing thoughts together and I don’t resent it one bit. I apparently have to dawdle a certain amount before I go to work. Also if I keep the dawdling in this form I never leave my story. If I wrote my dawdles some other way I would be thinking all over the map.

It’s so interesting to see ‘behind the curtain’ and read the mental struggles that he went through in the process of creating his book. Over the past two years of COVID-19 lockdowns and working from home I have noticed how some days feel great and others awful, for no discernible reason whatsoever. It seems that this is a shared experience:

This is not a morning of great joy for some reason or other. I don’t understand why some days are wide open and others closed off, some days smile and others have thin slitted eyes and others still are days which worry. And it does not seem to be me but the day itself. It has a nature of its own quite separate from all other days.

Today is a dawdly day. They seem to alternate. I do a whole of a day’s work and then the next day, flushed with triumph, I dawdle. That’s today.

Went to bed early last night, read happily, slept happily. Got up early and suddenly felt terrible—just terrible. Fought that off and was drained dry. Then I forced the work and it was as false and labored and foolish as anything I have ever seen. I tried to kid myself that it only seemed bad but it really was bad. So out it goes. And what do you suppose could have caused it? I just don’t know.

He also procrastinates when he has a particularly difficult piece of writing coming up:

I wish I knew how people do good and long-sustained work and still keep all kinds of other lives going—social, economic, etc. I can’t. I seem to have to waste time, so much dawdling to so much work. I am frightened by this week before it even happens.

I feel just worthless today. I have to drive myself. I have used every physical excuse not to work except fake illness. I have dawdled, gone to the toilet innumerable times, had many glasses of water. Really childish. I know that one of the reasons is that I dread the next scene, dread it like hell.

It was interesting to read his thoughts on the structure and content of the book which ended up being quite different in the finished novel. It boggles the mind how this was achieved during a time before word processors and the Internet, with precious handwritten pages being couriered from the author’s home to the publisher, and typed manuscript being reviewed and edited by hand.

East of Eden is long and it seems that Steinbeck knew this would be the case from the start. He has a theory about the impact of long versus short books on the reader:

Now—we must think of a book as a wedge driven into a man’s personal life. A short book would be in and out quickly. And it is possible for such a wedge to open the mind and do its work before it is withdrawn leaving quivering nerves and cut tissue. A long book, on the other hand, drives in very slowly and if only in point of time remains for a while. Instead of cutting and leaving, it allows the mind to rearrange itself to fit around the wedge. Let’s carry the analogy a little farther. When the quick wedge is withdrawn, the tendency of the mind is quickly to heal itself exactly as it was before the attack. With the long book perhaps the healing has been warped around the shape of the wedge so that when the wedge is finally withdrawn and the book set down, the mind cannot ever be quite what it was before. This is my theory and it may explain the greater importance of a long book.

If you read East of Eden and enjoyed the work, this additional book is well worth your time.

📚 I hadn’t realised that Steinbeck’s East of Eden had wrestled with the concept of multi-factor authentication.

“Listen to this,” he said to the operator.
“I already read it.”
“You did?”
“It comes over the wire,” said the operator. “I wrote it down.”
“Oh! Yes, sure. ‘Urgent need you telegraph me one hundred dollars. Coming home. Adam.’ ”
“Came collect,” the operator said. “You owe me sixty cents.”
“Valdosta, Georgia—I never heard of it.”
“Neither’d I, but it’s there.”
“Say, Carlton, how do you go about telegraphing money?”
“Well, you bring me a hundred and two dollars and sixty cents and I send a wire telling the Valdosta operator to pay Adam one hundred dollars. You owe me sixty cents too.”
“I’ll pay—say, how do I know it’s Adam? What’s to stop anybody from collecting it?”
The operator permitted himself a smile of worldliness. “Way we go about it, you give me a question couldn’t nobody else know the answer. So I send both the question and the answer. Operator asks this fella the question, and if he can’t answer he don’t get the money.”
“Say, that’s pretty cute. I better think up a good one.”
“You better get the hundred dollars while Old Breen still got the window open.”
Charles was delighted with the game. He came back with the money in his hand. “I got the question,” he said.
“I hope it ain’t your mother’s middle name. Lot of people don’t remember.”
“No, nothing like that. It’s this. ‘What did you give father on his birthday just before you went in the army?’ ”
“It’s a good question but it’s long as hell. Can’t you cut it down to ten words?”

📚 A Seat at the Table

I picked up Mark Schwartz’s A Seat at the Table as I have recently been thinking about how we can move away from the perception of our IT team as the people who ‘turn up and fix the Wi-Fi’ to one where we are seen as true business partners. The book took me by surprise in being less of a self-help manual and more of a well-articulated argument as to why the old ways in which we did things no longer apply in the digital age. It is brilliant.

Schwartz has a way of encapsulating key concepts and arguments in short, smart prose. The book contains the best articulation of the case for Agile, Lean and DevOps that I have read. There is so much wisdom in a single sentence, for example:

What is the value of adhering to a plan that was made at the beginning of a project, when uncertainty was greatest?

One of the books referenced heavily in A Seat at the Table is Lean Enterprise by Jez Humble, Joanne Molesky and Barry O’Reilly which I read some time ago. Lean Enterprise goes into more detail in terms of the concepts and mechanics used in modern software development such as continuous integration, automated testing etc. and brings them together into a coherent whole. Schwartz does not cover these topics in detail but gives just enough information to make his case as to why they are the sensible way forward for developing software.

A company may typically engage their IT department as if they are an external supplier. They haggle and negotiate, they fix scope and cost and they then the work starts. This approach does make some sense for working with a truly external vendor where they are taking on some of the financial risk of overrunning and you are able to specify exactly what you want in detail, for example where physical IT infrastructure is being delivered, installed and configured. It makes little sense when you are creating a new software system. It makes even less sense when the IT team are colleagues in the same organisation, trying to work out what investments will make the biggest impact on the company. We win and lose together.

First of all, we came to speak about “IT and the business” as two separate things, as if IT were an outside contractor. It had to be so: the business was us and IT was them. The arms-length contracting paradigm was amplified, in some companies, by the use of a chargeback model under which IT “charged” business units based on their consumption of IT services. Since it was essentially managing a contractor relationship, the business needed to specify its requirements perfectly and in detail so that it could hold IT to delivering on them, on schedule, completely, with high quality, and within budget. The contractor-control model led, inevitably, to the idea that IT should be delivering “customer service” to the enterprise—you’d certainly expect service with a smile if you were paying so much money to your contractors.

For readers who are familiar with why we use Agile software development methods, the arguments against the old ‘waterfall’ approach are well-known. What is more interesting is that Schwartz also points to issues that advocates of the Agile approach have exacerbated. Agile people can be suspicious of anyone that looks like a manager, and want them to get out of the way so that they can get on with the job. Schwartz argues that the role of managers and leadership is to remove impediments, many of which the Agile team cannot easily deal with on their own:

When the team cannot accomplish objectives, I am forced to conclude that they cannot do it within the given constraints. The team might need members with different skills. It might need permission to try an experiment. It might need the help of another part of the organization. It might need a policy to be waived. But if the task is possible and the team cannot achieve it, then there is a constraining factor. My job is to remove it.

What if someone on the team is really just not performing? Perhaps not putting in his or her share of effort, or being careless, or uncooperative? Well, then, dealing with the problem is simply another example of removing an impediment for the team.

The critical role of middle management, it would seem, is to give delivery teams the tools they need to do their jobs, to participate in problem-solving where the problems to be solved cross the boundaries of delivery teams, to support the delivery teams by making critical tactical decisions that the team is not empowered to make, and to help remove impediments on a day-to-day basis. The critical insight here, I think, is that middle management is a creative role, not a span-of-control role. Middle managers add value by contributing their creativity, skills, and authority to the community effort of delivering IT value.

He makes a clear case for getting rid of ‘project thinking’ completely. If you want a software delivery initiative to stay on budget, the only way to do that is through an agile project. The team will cost the organisation their run rate which is almost always known in advance. Work can be stopped at any time, preserving the developments and insights that have been created up to that point.

As a former PMO head, and with my current responsibilities of running a portfolio of change initiatives, it was interesting to see the approach to ‘business cases’ recommended in the book. Instead of signing off on a set of requirements for a particular cost by a certain date, you should be looking to assess the team on what they want to achieve and whether they have the skills, processes and discipline to give you confidence that they will:

  • be effective,
  • manage a robust process for determining the work they will do,
  • make good decisions,
  • seek feedback,
  • continually improve.

Schwartz gives a brilliant example of how difficult it is to articulate the value of something in the IT world, which gave me flashbacks to the hours I have spent wrestling with colleagues over their project business cases:

How much value does a new firewall have? Well … let’s see … the cost of a typical hacker event is X dollars, and it is Y% less likely if we have the firewall. Really? How do we know that it will be the firewall that will block the next intrusion rather than one of our other security controls? How do we know how likely it is that the hackers will be targeting us? For how long will the firewall protect us? Will the value of our assets—that is, the cost of the potential hack—remain steady over time? Or will we have more valuable assets later?

The word ‘requirements’ should go away, but so should the word ’needs’; if the organisation ‘requires’ or ‘needs’ something, what are the implications for right now when the organisation doesn’t have it? Instead of using these terms, we should be formulating hypotheses about things we can change which will help bring value to the organisation. Things that we can test and get fast feedback on.

Schwartz also argues against product as a metaphor, which was a surprise to me given how prevalent product management is within the industry today:

But the product metaphor, like many others in this book, has outlived its usefulness. We maintain a car to make it continue to function as if it were new. A piece of software, on the other hand, does not require lubrication—it continues to operate the way it always has even if we don’t “maintain” it. What we call maintenance is really making changes to keep up with changes in the business need or technology standards.

Senior IT leaders are ’stewards’ of three critical ‘assets’ in the organisation:

  1. The Enterprise Architecture asset  — the collection of capabilities that allows the organisation to function, polished and groomed by the IT team.
  2. The IT people asset — ensuring that the organisation has the right skills.
  3. The Data asset — the information contained in the company’s databases, and the company’s ability to use that information.

Much of the book comes back to these three assets to emphasise and elaborate on their meaning, and the work required to “polish and groom” them.

The author makes the case that CIOs should take their seat at the table with the rest of the CxOs through being confident, bold, and simply taking the seat in the same way that the others do. To talk of IT being ‘aligned’ to the business is to imply that IT can be ‘misaligned’, doing its own thing without giving any thought to the rest of the organisation. The CFO, CMO or any other CxO does not need to continually justify their existence and prove their worth to the business, and neither should the CIO. The CIO needs to have deep technology knowledge — deeper than the rest of the people around the table — and bring this knowledge to bear to deliver value for the organisation, owning the outcomes instead of just ‘delivering products’.

It follows that the CIO is the member of the senior leadership team—the team that oversees the entire enterprise—who contributes deep expertise in information technology. I do mean to say deep expertise. Increasingly, everyone in the enterprise knows a lot about technology; the CIO, then, is the person who knows more than everyone else. The CIO should be more technical, not less—that is how he or she contributes to enterprise value creation; otherwise, the role would not be needed.

The age of IT organizations hiding behind requirements—“just tell me what you need”— is gone. IT leaders must instead take ownership, responsibility, and accountability for accomplishing the business’s objectives. The IT leader must have the courage to own outcomes.

IT investments are so central to corporate initiatives that it is hard to make any other investment decisions without first making IT decisions. This last point is interesting, right? Perhaps it suggests that IT governance decisions should be made together with or in advance of other business governance decisions. Instead, in our traditional model, we think first about “business” decisions, and then try to “align” the IT decisions with them. But in our digital world—if we are truly committed to the idea that that’s the world we live in—IT should not follow business decisions but drive them.

CIOs and their staff have an excellent “end-to-end understanding of the business, a discipline and mindset of accomplishing goals, and an inclination toward innovation and change.” They bring a lot to the table.

Schwartz makes a case for the rest of the organisation becoming digitally literate and sophisticated in their use of technology. This may extend to people from all parts of the organisation being able to contribute to the codebase (or “Enterprise Architecture asset”) that is managed by IT. This should be no different to developers on an open source project making changes and submitting a ‘pull request’ to have those changes incorporated into the official codebase. We should embrace it, fostering and harnessing the enthusiasm of our colleagues. We should care less about who is doing the work and more about whether the company’s needs are met.

As much as I enjoyed the book, there were points where I disagreed. Schwartz argues strongly against purchasing off-the-shelf software — ever, it seems — and advocates building things in-house. He makes the point that software developed for the marketplace may not be a good fit for our business and may come with a lot of baggage. My view is that this completely depends on where the software sits in the stack and how commoditised it is. It makes no sense to implement our own TCP/IP stack, for example, nor does it make any sense to develop our own email client. (Nobody ever gained a new customer based on how good their email system was. Probably.) But I do agree that for software that is going to give us a competitive edge, we want to be developing this in-house. I think that something along the lines of a Wardley Map could be useful for thinking about this, where the further along the evolution curve a component is, the less Agile in-house development would be the preferred choice:

Overall this book is a fantastic read and will be one I come back to. It’s given me lots to think about as we start to make a case for new ways of working that go beyond the IT department.

📚 The Year Without Pants

Finished reading The Year Without Pants by Scott Berkun. I picked this up as I’ve started to think about the potential shift back to the office as the pandemic abates here in the UK.

I’d previously read and enjoyed Berkun’s Confessions Of A Public Speaker. He has a very readable style with an honest approach to his writing, and that is also true of this book. It’s a quick read.

The book documents his life as an employee of Automattic, the company that runs wordpress.com. He worked there in 2011–2012, a time which feels like it was only yesterday, but clearly isn’t. I think this is a consequence of me getting old. Everything feels like yesterday as time speeds up.) At that time, the company had grown to 50 staff, an inflexion point where they felt that they needed to move away from a completely flat structure to having small teams. Berkun was appointed by the CEO, Matt Mullenweg, as team lead for group that developed the social features of WordPress. He’d agreed to join for at least a year, on the condition that he could write this book about his experiences. It’s interesting to note that ten years on the company has now ballooned to 1,486 employees.

The book gave me food for thought, but not always in the way that I was expecting. It isn’t a book of tips and tricks. As one Goodreads reviewer said:

It’s interesting that a book about the author’s experience working for a company with a distributed work model focuses so much on his time spent with his team during in person meet-ups.

In our Teams, Zoom and WebEx-fuelled existence of today it is difficult to remember how things worked ten years ago. In the book, the Automattic teams depend on IRC text-based chat, Skype and writing on their team blogs (known as P2s), as well as a little bit of email. Back in 2006 when I was working at a large investment bank I remember some of the executives getting desktop videoconferencing; a very expensive affair involving dedicated hardware at their office desks. We now carry this capability wherever we have a computer, tablet or smartphone. It would be great to understand what impact this technological shift has had within the company.

Almost nobody at my current firm would consider themselves to be a blogger, but writing has snuck in the back door in the form of threads on Teams channels. I see people using Teams chats and channels very differently, with the former being ephemeral, ongoing conversations similar to Automattic’s IRC, and the channel posts being longer-lived items under a common topic. Any further chat on that topic is effectively a comments thread.

There were a few passages in the book that really resonated with me. In the past I’ve said to team managers that “the reason the team are laughing at your joke is that you’re the boss”, something that nobody likes to hear but is often true. The power wielded by people in charge can be wielded on chats and blogs too, and there is a real danger from dipping in and out. It’s not clear whether the CEO was conscious of this:

An example was something that came to be known as “Matt bombing.” This was when a team was working on something on a P2, heading in one direction. Then late in the thread, often at a point where some people felt there was already rough consensus, Matt would drop in, leave a comment advocating a different direction, and then disappear (not necessarily intentionally). Sometimes these posts were cryptic, for two reasons. First, it wasn’t clear if he was merely offering an opinion for consideration or giving an order, and even if it was an order, it wasn’t clear what the order was. Other times it was unclear how much of the thread he’d read or what his counterarguments were that led to his disagreement. Matt was brilliant, but it was hard to believe he had the same depth of understanding on every aspect on the thread that those on the project did.

This isn’t quite as bad as the Jeff Bezos ‘question mark email’, but it would still leave staff guessing about what was meant. I assume that if everyone had been together and weren’t working asynchronously via blogs there would have been room for some quick clarifying questions. Could you just call Mullenweg up to ask? I assume not, and Berkun identifies the lack of co-working space as muting the understanding that develops in an organisation in terms of how to go about challenging and questioning those people in positions of authority:

Most companies have confusing politics about who is allowed to disagree with whom and how they’re allowed to do it. However, in conventional workplaces, everyone gets to observe how their boss handles different situations and how other leaders challenge and convince them.

This past year of home working has left me feeling both better and worse about different aspects of my day-to-day life. Berkun nails it when he talks about remote work resulting in the highs and lows being more muted than before:

But the best things about workplaces, like sharing an epiphany after working for hours at a whiteboard, were gone too. Working remotely mellowed everything out, dropping the intensity of both the highs and the lows. Depending on your previous experience, this made things better or worse.

Being at home when there is an occasional drama going on has been much healthier, but I do miss collaborating with the team and the little jokes and amusing incidents that peppered the days.

I did make emotional connections with my team, just as I would if I were working with them in the same building every day. But that connection was fueled and recharged by the intensity of our meet-ups. Rarely did I think our work suffered because we were working remotely. But I did have times where I thought our work would be even better if we were in the same place and time more often.

There’s definitely something about being in the same place with everyone on a regular basis. However, pre-pandemic my existence mainly consisted of sitting on desktop video calls in our office for most of the day, talking to our global team. I am hoping the days of doing this five days a week are now in the past. For me the advantages of working from home — exercising every day, seeing my wife and children, saving money on commuting and avoiding the stress of the terrible train service — makes it my preferred option.

Many Automatticians, including Mullenweg, believe that distributed work is the best possible arrangement. I don’t quite agree. There is personal preference involved in how people want to work and what they expect to get from it. For me, I know that for any important relationship, I’d want to be physically around that person as much as possible. If I started a rock band or a company, I’d want to share the same physical space often. The upsides outweigh the downsides. However, if the people I wanted to work with were only available remotely, I’m confident we could do great work from thousands of miles away.

I think his conclusion nails it, but doesn’t leave any easy answers for companies looking for a model to turn to post-pandemic. If we agree that remote can work, how much choice should employees get? It’s one thing to decide for a company where everyone is a technologist and does a similar job, but quite another with a less homogenous workforce — should it be one rule for one team and something different for another?

A worthwhile read, and one that I regret getting to so late. I’d love to read a follow-up ten years on.

📚 Mr Tambourine Man

Finished reading Mr Tambourine Man: The Life and Legacy of the Byrds’ Gene Clark by John Einarson. Such a waste of talent, with an end that comes far too soon. I’m only a couple of years younger than Gene Clark was when he died at 46, and its hard to understand how much damage he did to himself through alcohol and drugs. He seemed to be caught in a loop of being in the wrong place at the wrong time from a career perspective, exacerbated by his tendency towards self-destructive behaviour, lack of self-confidence and unwillingness to promote himself. The fact that No Other wasn’t recognised as a masterpiece in his lifetime, and how much that must have hurt, has parallels with the career and personal decline of Nick Drake.

His music is wonderful, straddling a wide variety of styles. Despite not being a reader his lyrics have an incredible poetic quality about them. When I read this passage it struck me as to how much of a double-edged sword his creativity must have been:

“A typical hour when we came home,” David continues, “was three or four in the morning, after we did the recording sessions, went out to dinner, went to the Sunset Strip, then went home. One night we came home, the sun was ready to come up, and he sat down at the kitchen table and started dragging pieces of paper, napkins, matchbook covers, and he laid them out on the table. He asked me for a pen and he asked me for some coffee. So I got the coffee on and he started writing. He would be working away and he would stop, sit back and look at it, scribble something out and write something else. This went on all night. It was a marathon. At one point he asked, ‘Can you make me a sandwich?’ So I made him a grilled cheese sandwich and he continued to down the coffee. It turned out what he was doing was working on three different ideas at the same time, flipping back and forth between them, taking things from one and putting them in another. By about noon I was completely fuzzy. I didn’t need drugs; I was already spacey. But he kept on working. I said to him, ‘You’ve got to get some sleep! You’ve got to be at the studio at two o’clock, and he said, ‘Nah, man, I’ve got to get these done. I’m just about done. We were two hours late getting to the studio and had no sleep whatsoever. But he had finished what he was doing. He had completed these three projects together in the space of from about four o’clock in the morning until four in the afternoon after being up the day before at the sessions all night on the Sunset Strip with about three bites of a grilled cheese sandwich and about a gallon of coffee. He was just so focused. When he got into something he had to see it through the way he wanted it. He would not settle for ‘that’s good enough’ and that’s why he couldn’t settle with what some people were doing in some of the bands he was in. He drove them nuts and they drove him nuts. It was a two-way street.

It was great to learn more about Gene Clark, but it’s such a sad story, with a terrible, pathetic ending.

📚 With Steinbeck in the Sea of Cortez by Audry Lynch

A really lovely supplement to the main Sea of Cortez book. This should probably have been attributed to ‘Sparky Enea with Audry Lynch’ as it is essentially his story, which Lynch put together through hours of interviews. There is much more substance and detail here than in Steinbeck Remembered, another of Lynch’s works that I read recently, which covers a greater expanse of his life at much less depth.

There are some fascinating insights, such as the fact that the boat hired for the trip, the Western Flyer, was hired for $2,500, which sounds like a gigantic sum of money for 1940. Carol Steinbeck doesn’t come across very well, and not just because the men on the trip seemed to assume that she would cook for everyone (she didn’t.) I plan to read Susan Shillinglaw’s Carol and John Steinbeck: Portrait of Marriage to get a much better understanding of this important person in Steinbeck’s life.

Hearing that Steinbeck and Ricketts took a bit of artistic licence with the things that happened on the trip when they wrote ‘Sea of Cortez’ doesn’t take anything away from their story.

It’s a tiny book — more of a pamphlet — and well worth a read if you are familiar with the story of the original journey.

Jenson Button — Life To The Limit

Finished reading Jenson Button’s autobiography this week. It’s very well-written, honest, and he has a great ‘voice’. I remember watching his first season in F1 with Williams where he seemed to come from nowhere and now here we are, all of a sudden at the other end of his career.

Having watched F1 since the early 1990s a revelation for me was that F1 cars need to keep greater speed through corners in order to sustain or increase their grip on the circuit. I have always known that the cars have mechanical grip (through the tyres) and aerodynamic grip (through the wings pushing the car onto the track) but I had never made the connection with cornering speed. Jenson said that this was the biggest change from karts and other cars with little or no aerodynamics and it must be quite a thing to get your head around when you start to drive these bigger cars.

Other notable highlights were that he has driven with three of the Verstappens:

I’d joined Paul’s team, GKS, in 1995 when I moved into Formula A. It was a great team, where I found myself temporary teammates with Sophie Kumpen, who was dating Jos Verstappen and two years later had a baby with him. In other words, I raced with Max Verstappen’s mum, which is one of those things, like policemen getting younger, that you try not to think about.

…and that he really has been in F1 for a long time:

I was introduced to a dozen or so big names in the sport, including Patrick Head, Frank Williams and even Keke Rosberg, who used to be my dad’s favourite driver back in the day. Keke had his son Nico with him, who’s five years younger than me but was acting even younger that day. He was pulling at his dad’s arm as we were talking, trying to pull him away. I remember looking down at him, silently cursing him for messing up my introduction to Keke, thinking, ‘God, just leave us alone.’

If you’re into F1 this is worth picking up.

F1: Truly astonishing

Started reading Total Competition by Ross Brawn and Adam Parr. Early on in the book he gives an explanation of why Formula One cars are so incredible; it’s not just outright speed, it’s also how quickly they accelerate, brake and the extreme downforce and drag the aerodynamics generate. Fascinating.

The overall performance of a modern Formula One car is truly astonishing. The acceleration time from zero to 60 mph is a ‘modest’ 2.4 seconds, but this is because the car cannot put enough power down through the tyres. In reality the car’s acceleration accelerates: the next 60 mph to 120 mph requires only an extra two seconds. And the braking is astonishing: from 200 mph to a standstill in 3.5 seconds. The forces experienced by the drivers are also impressive, 5g in braking and 4g in cornering. By comparison, a high-performance road car might achieve 1g braking and cornering. The excessive g-forces explain why the drivers have to be superb athletes, comparable with any Olympian.

The cars can generate downforce equivalent to their mass, ¾ of a tonne at 110 mph, which means theoretically that, at that speed, they could drive along upside down and stick to the ceiling. At top speed, the cars generate 2.5 tonnes of downforce. The drag is so high that just lifting off the throttle at maximum speed will give over 1g of deceleration –the same level as a performance road car braking hard. In other words, an F1 driver who lifts his foot off the throttle will decelerate as quickly as a Porsche 911 driver doing an emergency brake.

The Punch Escrow

I picked up this book after attending Map Camp at the start of the month. The author, Tal M. Klein, was the final speaker at the conference and gave the day a lovely lighthearted ending with his application of Wardley Mapping to the technology in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery. From what I can gather, the author had used Wardley Mapping in his day job as VP of Strategy at Lakeside Software and then applied the same thinking to writing his novel. He used the technique to reason about technology advances that could be achieved in the not-too-distant future — by the year 2147, to be precise — and built a science-fiction adventure novel around them. Simon was handing out copies of the book to the speakers at Map Camp and after enjoying the author’s talk I was very intrigued.

I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I wanted to. At the start I was worried about the amount of footnotes which seemed to come thick and fast, explaining technologies and concepts. I don’t find these distracting in a non-fiction work, nor in a good translation of a foreign-language novel where there is an explanation of a nuance to the text that has been lost when turned into English, but they did grate here. Thankfully they are less frequent as the novel progresses and the key concepts are established. They feel too awkward, being in the first person of the main character/narrator sometime in the mid-22nd century, addressed to a future reader, but actually (and somewhat self-consciously) to a real reader in our time. For example:

In case you’ve devolved back to barter or evolved to something else, chits were the elastic global block-chain cryptocurrencies that underpinned our global economy. They were secure and unforgeable by design and made most financial crime obsolete…

Some of this is also in the main text:

I jumped up from the couch, sweeping aside several gaming windows on my comms with a wave of my hand. In case you guys in the future all speak telepathically or something, comms were neural stem implants that pretty much everyone got on their second birthday.

I didn’t feel any empathy with the characters. In the best novels I have read I find myself gripped by their plight; I am literally willing them to either step forward into or back from the course of action they are taking. This didn’t happen for me here. Partially I think this was because of the main character’s flippant style and tone:

As I tucked and buttoned, I silently cursed myself for not setting an alarm. True, my marriage had been trending downward for the past year, but the last thing I wanted was to initiate the Big Talk. And to be fair, we were both to blame for our relationship bottoming out.

…and partially from the way in which his relationship with his wife doesn’t seem believable. They don’t seem to have a strong enough bond, at least not one that is built up in the book. Without spoiling the story, I didn’t feel anything for them when their relationship — and their lives — are in peril. Not enough time is given to their backstory.

The technology side of the book is really thoughtful and interesting and there are some fascinating ideas here. I particularly liked how the author seemed to join self-driving cars, Google AdSense-type auctions and Uber surge pricing together into a simple believable concept:

Hurry meant that the cart would actively pay the occupants of other vehicles on the road to prioritize [his] route above theirs. It worked like an auction system, in which everyone could bid on getting to their destination as soon as they wanted. It could become incredibly expensive…

Despite everything I’ve said here, reviews for this book are not bad so you may well enjoy it. It is even being made into a film (warning: don’t click that link unless you want to read a one-line spoiler). For me, it was a worthwhile read, but isn’t life-changing and won’t be a book that I come back to.

Not Quite Paradise

I picked up the audio version of this book after returning from our recent holiday in Sri Lanka. I had so many lingering thoughts about the country and I wanted to get another perspective before it all faded out of my memory.

This is very different to Elephant Complex, a book that I started before we departed and had accompanied me on my journey. Not Quite Paradise takes a much more personal approach. The book is narrated by the author who moved from Arizona, USA to Sri Lanka with her 15-year old son soon after 9/11. The first part of the book serves as a pretty straightforward travel diary. I had seen a review on Goodreads which said that the book was “a so-so travelogue by another author whose observations are rather standard” but for me it was lovely to indulge a little bit in hearing someone talk first hand about places that we ourselves had recently visited and and to understand what it had felt like for her. However, as another reviewer notes, she “never explains what initially attracted her to Sri Lanka” and this remains a mystery. It must have been a great upheaval for her teenage son; they eventually decide that he will return home while she stays on for a little longer. Nothing very dramatic happens throughout this part of the book, but the pleasure is in the small details of life and interactions that she has with the people, her house and the landscape.

The second half is quite different. It starts during Christmas 2004 where she hears the awful news of the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami which brought devastation and death to the island. She is almost immediately compelled to return there to…I’m not quite sure what. See it first-hand? Report on the damage? Complete the book? She doesn’t give too much away about why she wanted to make the journey, but make it she did, and her writing covers a much broader scope of the island and its recent history as she travels around in this part of the book. Some of the accounts of the tsunami are devastating, even more so as they are weaved together with details and evidence of the long Sri Lankan Civil War. The book was a useful compliment to the topics covered in Elephant Complex and I was grateful to it filling in quite a few gaps in my knowledge and clearing up my misunderstandings from the other, denser, book. The timeline covered stops short of the brutal end of the civil war and felt slightly unfinished because of it.

I don’t think this will ever be held up as one of the greatest travelogues of all time but I did find it a very pleasant read — just what I was looking for after my own Sri Lankan journey.

Postlight’s birthday

Great to read about Postlight turning two years old. Starting up a small business as an independent contractor is scary enough, I can’t imagine what it feels like to have responsibility for over two dozen people from the get-go:

Tip: Don’t start a company with a 25 person payroll, the usual accompanying costs and barely a plan.

We had some commitments from clients, and stable footing. But within a few months the bedrock client would fall away. We’d call a meeting and stare at each other. I’d love to tell you we walked out and left a jammed whiteboard with a birds-eye view of a broad strategic plan. We didn’t. We just kept trying stuff.

Their Track Changes podcast is excellent. I’m a little behind but have been listening since episode one. Each show has smart people (Paul and Rich, the co-founders) talking to smart guests about a broad range of topics. Their candour about what the podcast is and does for them as a marketing tool is refreshing, and makes me wish I was back in New York so that I could pay a visit to one of their events. Last year they even sent me a book with highlights from their first few episodes. Cool company and I wish them every success.

The Devil In The Flesh

A really good read, particularly when put in context of the author’s short life and the time it was written. I read the Melville House edition of the book and enjoyed the afterword by the translator almost as much as the work itself.

There is a farcical scene in the book where a former town councillor, Monsieur Marin, and his wife host a gathering, which when I read it made me think of readers of The Daily Mail:

“I discovered that the entertainment the Marins were planning was to stand under our bedroom later in the afternoon and catch us in the act. They had probably acquired a taste for it, and wanted to broadcast their little pleasures. Being respectable people, the Marins naturally attributed this prurience of theirs to moral decency. They wished to share their indignation with all the other upright folk in the district.”

The translator’s afterword covers this point, as well as a larger one that the work shone a light of truth on the relationships that must have taken place while men were away fighting in World War I. That this must have been a feature of those times had never occurred to me; it must have been shocking to read about this when the book was published. We still talk today about conscientious objectors being given white feathers, but don’t hear so much about those people who weren’t directly affected negatively by the war:

“The narrator symbolizes the generation who witnessed the Great War from the safe distance of their “four-year-long holiday”, resenting how it intruded on their personal gratification in the same way their suburban calm was occasionally spoilt by the echo of serious events in the capital. In this it is impossible not to see a reflection of the hedonistic, predominantly suburban Western society of the present day, its spiritual vacuity that seems content to consume while creating little of lasting value.”

Time and again I find myself surprised by ‘old’ works of fiction and how modern and relevant they are. I tend to think of World War I as all-consuming for the people that lived through it but for some of course this may not have been the case.

This is a really enjoyable book and well worth the short time to read it.

Elephant Complex: Travels in Sri Lanka

Read this book before and during my holiday in Sri Lanka. Gives an excellent overview of the country and its history which reveals itself to the reader gradually, culminating in an account of the end of the civil war. The chapters are sequenced and themed in a general anti-clockwise journey around the island starting in Colombo/Negombo.

On my travels I met a scientist from England who said that he found this book quite dense; I was grateful to find that it wasn’t just me who felt this! I think that the subject matter is so complex (as per the title) that it couldn’t be anything but.

A very worthwhile read if you are visiting or have been to the island. A fascinating book about a unique country.

More to follow about our amazing holiday when I get the chance to write up my notes.

Mary MacLane

I stumbled across Mary MacLane’s first book on the Melville House Publishing website where it features as part of their Neversink Library series. Instead of picking that up, I discovered Human Days: A Mary MacLane Reader and bought it with the hope that it would give me all three of her books as well as historical context and commentary.

MacLane has been called ‘the first blogger’ and I think that this is a fitting description. Her first book, The Story of Mary MacLane (also known as I Await The Devil’s Coming) reads like an introspective LiveJournal, all meandering thoughts, feelings and rumination on her place in the world. Completely fascinating.

Whenever I pick up an old book I am regularly jarred by the contrast between my automatic assumption that it will be a difficult text and the reality of how readable and modern the thoughts and feelings of the author can be. When you look at pictures of MacLane it seems that she belongs to another world but upon reading her it feels as though she would not have been out of place whatsoever on an early blogging platform 100 years later.

The book is in equal parts compelling and frustrating. In retrospect, reading a ‘complete works’ in one go was probably the wrong thing to do. My initial excitement about her writing wore off somewhat when I read the articles she had published once her first book was a success. Her second book, My Friend Annabel Lee was much less enjoyable and felt more contrived — as I read it I could feel that this was someone who knowingly had an audience and was now performing in public.

I would have loved to have had more context and commentary about MacLane the person and her works, particularly at this point, but the text that had been added was very brief and devoid of detail. I appreciate that this addition could have added massively to the length of the book but I felt that as presented there was little advantage to buying all of the books together, unless you wanted to read all of her non-book articles as well.

By the time we got to her third book, I, Mary MacLane, it had started to feel like a bit of a slog. I was reading so much of her thoughts but felt I was learning so little; perhaps that was her intent. A couple of times I thought about stopping but as soon as I did so I would get hit by a brilliant chapter and be compelled to keep going. Highlights for me at this point were the following chapters, which are worth reading by anyone:

I regularly found myself going off to look up some of the names that she mentions, for example Theda Bara, a famous actress of her time but now tragically unwatched due to her films being largely lost in a 1937 fire. There are many of these rabbit holes to disappear down. At the end of the book I discovered an extensive notes section which I only wish was hyperlinked in the eBook so that I could have read them in real time — going back to notes on a chapter some 600 pages before was not that useful.

So, overall this is well worth picking up but be warned — for me this was like diving into the ‘director’s cut extended special edition’ when I wasn’t even sure if I was going to like the main feature in the first place.

Building an eBook library at minimal cost

Update November 2017: Amazon have changed the way that wish lists are presented in that the full list is loaded and then locally sorted in the browser, taking a significant amount of time if you have a large list. This has broken the process — the visualping.io snapshot is taken too soon and therefore continually reports false positives. If you have any suggestions for alternative solutions I’d be glad to hear them.

Update January 2021: This seems to be working again.

Update November 2021: Looks like you can no longer sort your wish list by ‘items with price drops’, so this technique will no longer work.

Quote from 'A Life With Books' by Julian Barnes

Quote from ‘A Life With Books’ by Julian Barnes

I highlighted this sentence while reading Julian Barnes’ ‘A Life With Books’ as it really resonated with me. Among my many faults I am a book kleptomaniac and find it very hard to resist when someone recommends something to read. This isn’t something I want to change — I love having a large library looking back at me every time I want to quickly pick up something a new book — but it can be expensive.

A few years ago I developed a workflow which has allowed me to slowly build a big library at minimal cost. Here’s how it works.

If I get a book recommendation from somewhere and think that it sounds like it is of interest to me I will search for the Kindle version on Amazon and add it to my wish list:

Add to list

Add to list

I’m pretty liberal with what goes on there. I harvest book recommendations from friends, newspaper articles, blog posts, podcasts etc. and as a result I have hundreds of eBooks on my list. Putting Kindle books on there is only really useful as a reminder to yourself as for some reason we are still not able to buy eBooks for other people from their wish lists.

Once you have a number of books on there, the next thing to do is to navigate to your list page:

Navigate to your wish list page

Navigate to your wish list page

You can use the filtering and ordering options to show only ‘items with price drops’, sorted by ‘price (low to high)’:

Select ‘Filter & Sort’

Select ‘Filter & Sort’

Choose the correct filter and sort options

Choose the correct filter and sort options

You will now see anything on your wish list that has dropped in price since you added it, with the cheapest item at the top. At this point it is a good idea to either bookmark this URL or save it somewhere so that you can come back to it.

Amazon Kindle books change their prices all the time so you need to check the page frequently. I have a personal rule that if a book on my wish list drops below £1.99 I will buy it, as this is around the same minimum price that you would have to pay for someone to send you a physical second-hand copy.

For a long time I regularly visited this bookmarked page to see if anything had dropped in price. This was a pain to have to remember to do, especially as most of the time it resulted in discovering that nothing had changed. Then I discovered VisualPing.

The VisualPing homepage

The VisualPing homepage

VisualPing is a webpage monitoring service. On the homepage, you give it a URL to monitor. VisualPing will retrieve a copy of the webpage as it is right now and display it for you. You then need to select the area that you want to monitor; for my Amazon wish-list page (filtered for items with price-drops and ordered from low price to high) I have found that just monitoring the top few items gives the best results:

Selecting the area that you want visualping to monitor

Selecting the area that you want visualping to monitor

The VisualPing service will check the webpage on a regular basis and if there is a difference found it will send you an email alert, complete with screenshots showing the ‘before’ and ‘after’ views. You can then navigate to the page and buy the new cheapest items that have made it to the top of the list.

VisualPing will allow you to monitor your wish list with a daily check every day, free, forever. This will catch all of the major price movements at the top of your list which usually occur on the start of the month. However, I have occasionally found that some books are dropped in price late in the evening UK time and don’t stay cheap for very long. It is therefore worth considering upgrading to a paid account so that you can check the page more frequently. I have mine set to check every six hours which seems to be about right:

Now, if only there was a workflow for sitting down and spending more time reading the books…