Tag Archives: reading

The Value of Everything

Economics is one of those subjects that I’ve only ever seen from the sidelines. When I was at school, I remember seeing friends drawing simple demand curve graphs. It looked pretty straightforward, though, of course, anything you don’t understand very well often does.

Over the years, “life” touches on the concepts fairly often. Whether it’s what’s going on at work or things the government is doing (or not doing), you can’t get far without hearing the word.

Probably what I need is an “introduction to economics” book. Instead, I read Mariana Mazzucato’s “The Value of Everything,” which talks about the concept of “value” which isn’t quite the same thing but was fascinating nevertheless.

For example, reading about forecasts and GDP1, you often see hints, or explicit mention, that government is “unproductive.” Certainly, the idea that private enterprise is more efficient than the government is thoroughly entrenched. What I hadn’t really considered was how “value” and GDP is defined. And, it turns out, that what the government does is by definition unproductive.

This is a narrow definition of “productive” that then makes its way out into society by people who don’t know that it’s an economics term. Much as the word “theory” is used to discredit “the theory of evolution” by people who think “theory” just means a hunch or guess.

Having defined value, Mazzucato moves on to discuss the implications, from the contribution to GDP that banking, pharmaceutical and technology companies make to the effectiveness of government spending and austerity.

It’s not the most exciting of subjects, I grant you, and it’s written fairly flat and academically, but there’s a lot of good stuff in there. A few times I found myself disagreeing, or thinking a statement was overly generalised, only to find that she covered that in a subsequent section. This was a little frustrating on one hand but on the other kept me reading to the end.

Overall, it’s easy to recommend if you’re conflicted on the role of government and big business. As ever, there are no easy answers but it clarified a few things and made me think and about others.


  1. Yeah, maybe I should get out more. ↩︎

How to be right

Sometimes I can’t help being a bit of a liberal caricature. James O’Brien is one too, and he knows it.

In his book “How to be right… in a world gone wrong” he goes through a bunch of topics, from Islam to Political Correctness, and debunks the common arguments, often using transcripts from his radio show. The chapter on The Age Gap is, perhaps, the one that made me think the most.

If you live in the same bubble that I do, you’ll probably find that it’s not essential reading. Which is not to say that it’s badly written or poorly argued or difficult to read. It isn’t. It’s a quick, enjoyable read. There’s just not a lot that’s new.

Unix: A History and a Memoir

This is probably the geekiest book I’ve read in a long time. It’s basically one step up from reading the source code for your favourite operating system. Or perhaps having a favourite operating system.

What I would say is that Unix has been pretty much the only constant throughout my career. I started with Solaris and HP-UX at university. I installed an early version of Linux on my personal machine to avoid the thirty-minute walk from home to the university labs. I’ve done consulting, I’ve developed both vertical and horizontal applications1, C and C++, Swift and Java, banking and telecoms. Pretty much the only thing they’ve all had in common was some sort of Unix underpinning.

And that’s bizarre. So much of computing changes in five years, yet Unix wasn’t even new when I started at university!

This book is the story, the memoir, of one of the people who built it. And it’s fascinating but probably only for a relatively small audience. I loved the first chapter, where he name-dropped some of the people who Kernighan worked with. Plaugher. Aho. Ullman. Honestly, if you’ve not heard of them, you’re probably not the target market for this book.

Also, if you’re Richard Stallman, you’re probably not the target for this book either: in the last chapter, he says that GNU software is “open source.”

On the other hand, if you’re not Stallman and you know about some or all of the people involved, then you are the target for this book. Read it. You’ll love it.


  1. Is that common terminology? A “vertical” application is one that’s applicable only to one industry, such as a trading application. A “horizontal” application is usable by many, like a database or operating system. ↩︎

Never split the difference

If I took this book to heart, I should try to convince you to read it.

I’ll be honest, I wasn’t sure I’d like this book, and I mainly took it out of the library so I could make the joke in the first paragraph (and others like it). I mean, negotiation isn’t my job. I’m not, like the author, a hostage negotiator. I’m not even in sales. The key, of course, is that we all have to negotiate from time to time. While I may not often have to negotiate money in my day job, I do have to agree on the scope of work. This is a form of negotiation. We all have to buy stuff or hire someone to deal with jobs around the house.

What I’m saying is this book won me around. Something that deals with “human factors” can never be a full instruction guide, but in ten chapters, from “mirroring” to trying to figure out those “unknown unknowns” Voss walks you through the whole process. The examples are varied, from sales to hostage negotiation, some more relatable than others, but they all serve their purpose.

Some areas you’ll have seen before. I’ve come across the suggestion to “mirror” previously But even in those cases, there are new suggestions or contexts to consider.

I guess the ultimate test is whether I’ll actually use the suggestions. Some will undoubtedly take some nerve, but I suspect most people will get something out it. I’m not sure I’m going full FBI the next time the need arises, but I absolutely intend to use some of the ideas around how best to ask questions and guiding people towards the correct — your — answer.

Bounce

Matthew Syed’s “Bounce” is a pop-science book that I borrowed from the library on a whim. It’s about the the “science of success” and starts with the idea that experts have at least 10 000 hours worth of experience in their field.

It’s… fine. I think I believed the thesis before I started but, while it was easy to read, I’m not sure how much it added.

The third chapter — about deliberate practice — almost had me for a minute, until I realised I’d seen it many times before. You see people at work who claim n years of experience but it doesn’t take long to understand that they just have the same year repeated over and over again; they didn’t grow or learn.

This is also the chapter where I agree with one statement in principle but not in practice. He says that while most of his examples show sportsmen improving their performance, the benefit could also be applied to society as a whole (agree) and that the economic advantage would be shared by everyone (disagree). We’ve seen productivity across countries improve for the last thirty years yet a disproportionate amount of the proceeds have gone to the rich. I’m not sure how we fix that.

He did lose me towards the end. Not that I disagree with where he was going in the last chapters about the reasons behind the success of black athletes1, but I’m not entirely clear that it needed to be in this book. Did he have to hit a word-count? Did he just want to include something he was interested in even though it was only tangentially related to the rest of the book? (Kind of like I did in the last paragraph about inequality.)

Anyway, it was an easy read. I think it reinforced what I already believe but didn’t significantly challenge or ultimately dramatically increase my understanding. Perhaps the 10 000 hours theory has so thoroughly permeated society that this book has been rendered surplus to requirements.


  1. Spoiler alert: it has little to do with their skin colour. ↩︎

Reading 2019

I failed.

By half a book! I missed my goal of twelve books in 2019 by a few hundred pages1.

In my defence, “Guns, Germs and Steel” is very long but the real culprit (like the previous year) is my lack of a commute. Not that I’m sick of working from home yet but that was my reading time and now I just don’t have a time that I consistently set aside.

Still, eleven books isn’t bad when you consider all the other material I was reading too. (Might be better for my mental health if I dial it down on Brexit news!) In 2019 there was a better mix of fiction and non-fiction, too, so, while I didn’t reach my target, it worked out pretty well anyway.

I’ve set the same target of twelve books for 2020. Let’s see how that goes.


  1. Depending on how you count them. I read a few technical books (“Scala Cookbook,” “Deploying to OpenShift“) among others but somewhat arbitrarily I’ve not included those in the tally. ↩︎