Book review: Pyramids by Terry Pratchett

Pyramids (Discworld, #7)Pyramids by Terry Pratchett

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Camels would receive more admiration if they published in the peer-reviewed literature and spat in fewer people’s faces.

Teppic sets out from home to learn a trade. An honourable trade. An important trade. A valued trade. So he attends Ankh-Morpork’s famed assassins’ school. But he has barely graduated when his father dies and he has to return to the family business: king of an ancient land. His new worldliness clashes with the millennia of tradition held in place by the priests of Djelibeybi. These traditions lead to cataclysm and Teppic has to save the land of pyramids before war breaks out. Because war has to break out. It’s tradition.

As I was reading Pyramids – the bit with You Bastard calculating the flares – the sheer scale of the Discworld novels struck me. There are so many little pieces crammed into each book that you wonder how Sir Terry managed to repeat that effort over 40 times. It probably struck me because Pyramids is a more straight-forward narrative with a focus on the character of Teppic. When compared to many of the other Discworld novels I’ve read of late, this one is an “easy read”.

Definitely a 4 mathematical genius camels out of 5 novel.

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Book review: Buddhism is Not What You Think by Steve Hagen

Buddhism is Not What You Think: Finding Freedom Beyond BeliefsBuddhism is Not What You Think: Finding Freedom Beyond Beliefs by Steve Hagen

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Enlightenment or your money back!

How can we see the world in each moment, rather than merely as what we think, hope, or fear it is?
How can we base our actions on reality, rather than on the longing and loathing of our hearts and minds?
How can we live lives that are wise, compassionate, and in tune with reality?
And how can we separate the wisdom of Buddhism from the cultural trappings and misconceptions that have come to be associated with it?

Steve Hagen’s Buddhism is Not What You Think is pretty straight forward. He sets out to answer the above four questions whilst addressing the title of the book. And he does this in the introduction. The rest of the book is pretty much just examples to drive the main point home.

There aren’t too many books that wrap their entire argument/premise up quite this quickly. But that probably comes back to the message Hagen is trying to get across about Buddhism and truth. Essentially, we already know truth, but we are too caught up in everything else in life to see it. Thus, Zen practice and Buddhism are about helping get past the distractions.

This was a fairly solid book for advice around Zen practice. But the philosophy aspects I was after were a bit light on.

We often think we know things when in fact it’s only our imagination taking us further and further away from what is actually happening. What we imagine then seems very real to us. Soon we’re caught up in our imaginary longings and loathings. But if you’re here – truly present – you realize there’s nothing to run from or to go after. You can stay calm…Just be with this moment and see what’s going on.

 

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Book review: Blackwater by Jeremy Scahill

Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary ArmyBlackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army by Jeremy Scahill

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Let’s privatise the military. How could that possibly go wrong?

Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army outlines the political landscape of Blackwater’s founding, the personal history of several key players – particularly Erik Prince – and the actions and intentions that made the company so infamous. It attempts to explain and document how mercenaries went through a rebranding to become the operators of choice in conflict zones around the world.

Okay, so I thought I had read enough news articles and the like to have some idea of what Blackwater was about. Mercenaries and the name Blackwater became something of a shorthand for “loose cannons”, becoming the villains in movies and TV shows. But as Scahill outlines, the reality and totality are so much worse than I’d thought. Blackwater and several other companies are discussed, along with the players who made this all possible. You’ll recognise many of the politician’s names, but maybe less so the “contractors”. This was disturbing reading.

They couldn’t get a coalition of the willing, so they turned to a coalition of the billing.

There were a few very important points that were made. The first was how senior political figures decided they wanted to privatise the military and associated intelligence work. This is such a terrible idea that you have to be pretty ideologically bent-out-of-shape to think it is good. The most troubling reason for this being terrible is the lack of accountability this gives these newly privatised people with guns, bombs, and shady contacts. As numerous leaks have shown over the years, the military is already far too unaccountable.*

Which brings me to the second point, that once they are privatised, the companies lobby hard to remain unaccountable, saying they don’t fall under military rules because they are private citizens, and that they don’t fall under civilian rules because they are acting as part of a military force. In essence, they can literally commit murder and they have been positioned by their lobbyists and key politicians to never be even investigated for the crime.

Those points should disturb everyone. You may not see a problem with war profiteering, or religious fundamentalists pushing for war and creating conflict (or at least involving themselves in them), or free marketeers wanting to privatise everything, or private companies hiring “shoot-first-never-answer/ask-questions” mercenaries to guard their kitchen supplies. But I think we can all agree that you have to be accountable for your actions, and Blackwater (et al.) has not been.

After reading this book you’d think Erik Prince would suffer some consequences…. Nope. He’s still going.

The only complaint I have about Scahill’s book is that it was somewhat repetitive. Several points were raised repeatedly, not to highlight them, but because the surrounding issues or players were being discussed again.

After reading this I can only hope that the various players involved aren’t allowed to have positions of power and influence ever again.**

* Because schools, hospitals, cafes, etc are totally legit military targets and not war crimes.
** My hopes will remain unfulfilled, I’m afraid.

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Book review: The Entrepreneurial State by Mariana Mazzucato

The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public vs. Private Sector MythsThe Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public vs. Private Sector Myths by Mariana Mazzucato

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Government: We invented this.
Private company: Can we have it?
G: Sure. Just remember to pay you taxes.
P: Lol, our what?

The Entrepreneurial State is Mariana Mazzucato’s detailed effort to debunk some of the often claimed myths about government’s role in innovation. Her argument is that it is the public sector, not the private sector, that is often the innovators, risk-takers, and entrepreneurs in the economy. And because ideology has pushed for the state/government’s role to be smaller, we run the risk of not having the next generation of innovations/technologies.

I recently read Mariana’s The Value of Everything and wanted to read this earlier work. Similar to her arguments about how we measure the economy, Mariana’s arguments about innovation are well made, have plenty of references, piles of evidence, some great examples, and leave you with the head-scratching amazement that we need this book.

I’m sure that anyone who has worked in the public or private sector would read some of the examples in this book and be immediately reminded of some from their own field. Whether it be the government contract their company was gifted, or the publicly funded research that is commercialised, or the public infrastructure support given for that new project, we can probably all think of examples where entire industries or technologies wouldn’t have happened without governments taking the first step.

So how is it that myths (listed below) about the economy and who the entrepreneurs are persist?

Myths about Drivers of Innovation and Ineffective Innovation Policy
Myth 1: Innovation is about (private) R&D
Myth 2: Small (government) is beautiful
Myth 3: Venture capital is risk-loving
Myth 4: We live in a knowledge economy—just look at all the patents!
Myth 5: Europe’s problem is all about commercialization
Myth 6: Business investment requires ‘less tax and red tape’

There is only so much ideology that can stand in the way of reality. Unfortunately, I suspect that there is plenty of ideology floating around like an iceberg during a maiden voyage.*

An excellent book that is well worth reading.

We live in an era in which the State is being cut back. Public services are being outsourced, State budgets are being slashed and fear rather than courage is determining many national strategies. Much of this change is being done in the name of rendering markets more competitive, more dynamic. This book is an open call to change the way we talk about the State, its role in the economy and the images and ideas we use to describe that role. Only then can we begin to build the kind of society we want to live in, and want our children to live in, in a manner that pushes aside false myths about the State and recognizes how it can, when mission-driven and organized in a dynamic way, solve problems as complex as putting a man on the moon and solving climate change. And we need the courage to insist—through both vision and specific policy instruments—that the growth that ensues from the underlying investments be not only ‘smart’, but also ‘inclusive’.

* You only have to read some of the 1-star reviews for this book to find evidence of this ideology in action.

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Book review: Mort by Terry Pratchett

Mort (Discworld, #4)Mort by Terry Pratchett

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’m not going to make a joke about learning a trade being a killer idea.

Mort is a tall skinny kid who just wants to know how the world works. Death has been flat out since the beginning of time. So when Mort’s dad decides it is time for him to learn a trade, Death offers him an apprenticeship to help cover some of the work. Hopefully, Mort doesn’t mess it up.

I quite like Death. As in the character. Death and his granddaughter Susan are two of my favourite Discworld characters. So it was definitely time to read the earlier Death instalments in the series. Worth it!

I was only a few pages into Mort when I found myself chuckling. Out loud. Normally I can keep that stuff to myself. But I couldn’t help it.

There doesn’t need to be much more said than that. Entertaining and chuckle out loud funny.

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Book Review: Bad Blood by John Carreyrou

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley StartupBad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“Fake it ’till you make it” should probably only be allowed for artists, not scientists, engineers, and medical companies.

Bad Blood is the full expose John Carreyrou started with his Wall Street Journal articles in 2015 on Theranos. For a decade, Theranos founder and CEO Elizabeth Holmes had managed to attract huge amounts of investment, respected board members, and media attention. But in that decade the company had been putting the cart before the horse, promising big whilst still being in the early development phases. The CEO and president (also COO) kept this all under wraps by keeping its own staff in the dark, often resorting to bullying and intimidation.

I first heard about Theranos via a couple of friends who work in medical research. Obviously, I surround myself with other science nerds, so they were dubious of the claims the company and the media were making about their tech. To be honest, I didn’t really pay much attention, nor remember my friends’ pronouncements until I picked up this book from the library.

In many ways, this tale is worse than the “Biggest Corporate Fraud Since Enron” would have you believe. And that tale isn’t necessarily on the page. The author and many of this book’s readers will be shaking their heads at how terrible Theranos was with all its lying, fraud, and bullying of staff. Amazing. Hard to believe. But the thing is that a lot of what was described was just close enough to normal, within standard business practices*, that the fraud managed to run for so long. Using the example of the frequent firings of staff who raised concerns, that would seem just normal enough to not raise a red flag. It doesn’t appear like a CEO and COO trying to cover anything up.

Just close enough to a normal business.

The other thing I noted was the lack of accountability. Sure, the closing chapters cover the lawsuits being brought against Elizabeth Holmes and “Sunny” Balwani, and since Bad Blood was written 9 counts of wire fraud and 2 counts of conspiracy to commit wire fraud have been brought against them. But that is just two of the culpable players in this tale. David Boies and his team of lawyers** spring to mind as having some responsibility here. No charges. Of course.

And wire fraud??? What about the danger patients were put in? What about all the underhanded tactics used against staff and former staff? Why isn’t this behaviour being held accountable in this instance so as to set some sort of precedent across the corporate world?***

There needs to be way more accountability for all involved. Not just for those who lost people money.

If it isn’t clear by now, this is an interesting read and one that will fascinate and annoy you. Carreyrou does a great job expanding on his reporting with an engaging book.

* As other reviewers have pointed out, this story isn’t really that different from a lot of Silicon Valley business tales. Wrapping staff up in non-disclosure agreements, working them for long hours, spying on them, firing them at the drop of a hat (in a country that ties health insurance to employment, and doesn’t believe in a social safety net), that’s all standard practice. Had Theranos been operating in tech rather than medicine, they’d have probably gotten away with it, as medicine has some regulations, unlike a lot of other fields.

** Same lawyers who covered up and intimidated Harvey Weinstein’s victims. They are well known for their nastiness, as mentioned in the book.

*** Not much was made of it in the book, but Holmes was mentored by Silicon Valley’s “best,” including Larry Ellison, who is a textbook example of the amoral, at-all-cost “entrepreneur” the area is so famous for. Which is why I don’t see this as exceptional.

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Book review: The Hunted by Elmore Leonard

The HuntedThe Hunted by Elmore Leonard

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When hiding, try not to get your photo in the newspaper.

Al Rosen is living the dream. He has retired early, he has money, he’s charming and ladies love him, and he’s hiding in Israel from the Detroit mob. An evening with a woman he has just met ends in a hotel fire and his picture in the paper. By the end of the week, a hit team are in the country. But he can’t leave yet, not without his lawyer handing over his money, and his lady friend returning his passport. To survive he’ll need all the help he can get, like the marine Davis.

I don’t think there is any argument that Elmore Leonard was an amazing writer. Pick up anything he wrote and you’ll see it. The writing just flows. The dialogue, to quote one of those stupid pull quotes they stick on the covers of books, just snaps. The Hunted is no exception. I breezed through the book… when I was reading it.

And this is what has left me confused. I’m not exactly sure why I could read this story so easily and yet not find myself compelled to pick it back up. I’ve held off on writing this review because I’ve been expecting an opinion to form at some point.

That leaves me with speculation. I suspect that Leonard’s writing in The Hunted hid a largely uninteresting story. Kinda like a master artist giving your walls a coat of paint. Or maybe my interrupted reading time has pulled me out of the book too often and I’m just not appreciating the story.

To be clear, I’m not saying this is bad or unenjoyable, far from it. I was just expecting more from Leonard, especially considering his skills were on display here.

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