Oprah Time: Blood and Faith – the purging of muslim Spain (1492 – 1614) by Matthew Carr

I picked up Blood and Faith on a trip to Madrid. I have a habit of picking up English language history books if I can when visiting a place. It gives you a sense of how a country wants itself to be seen. These usually vary from clumsy propaganda to insightful works.

Coming across Carr’s book surprised me as it addressed a part of Spain’s history in an unsympathetic light. It covers briefly the expulsion of Spain’s Jewish community and covers the expulsion of the Moors in greater depth.
Blood and Faith - the purging of muslim Spain (1492 - 1614) by Matthew Carr
Carr’s background as a journalist and as the son of a controversial English teacher who got involved in post-colonial politics casts a certain lens for his writing perspective. His knowledge of Spain and Islam is second to none having covered both the Islamic world and Spain extensively in books and journalism.

Carr paints a complex picture of tolerance and a cosmopolitan society interspersed with zealotry, bigotry and criminality.  The book shows how the decision to expel the Moors came about, a mix of:

  • Security concerns in terms of internal strive and alleged support of pirate raiding parties from North Africa and Turkey
  • Changes in Spanish royalty as the Hapsburg’s came to the throne. Their German background brought a ‘neoconservative’ viewpoint on Islam due the threat that the Ottoman empire posed to central Europe
  • Internal politics within the Catholic church with hawks and doves
  • External relations with the Holy See and other Catholic countries who viewed Spain as being tainted
  • Internal injustice that caused Moor dissent which in turn fuelled the paranoia of the Spanish

The book and its subject matter feels surprisingly contemporary. 17th century Spain still provides us with a good picture of the challenges and chaos that ensues trying to deport people en masse. From discovery to logistics it was a nightmare.

The issues of conservative populism and racism also feel very contemporary given political sentiment across Europe.  The expulsion of the Moors and reconquest of Spain have been cited by both Al Qaeda and Daesh to justify their actions.

If you want a book to read on Spain’s relationship with the Moors this is a well researched book, just be careful with what conclusions you chose to draw from it.

 

Oprah Time: reading over Chinese New Year

I have managed to catch up on a lot of reading over the Lunar New Year festival.

Joe Studwell’s How Asia Works is fascinating reading. It talks about how Korea, Japan and China have grown while their counterparts haven’t. Studwell highlights a number of factors that contribute to economic growth:

  • With an agrian economy, a market garden approach to agriculture rather than farming at scale delivers the best results. But only if rent seeking interests are removed through effective agricultural reform
  • Industry requires total mastery of technology – which is the reason why low grade heavy industry is the starting point
  • Exports planned into industrial development from the beginning and a continued relentless focus on exports is required
  • Governments are best at keeping businesses focused on total technology mastery, raising cheap finance and weeding out failures that might be a resource suck

Studwell critiques how different countries throughout Asia have managed to process in this manner including both the strengths and the weaknesses of their respective approaches.

It was fascinating to read how Taiwan managed to succeed in spite of nationalised industries and the challenges in China’s agricultural model.  How General Park ‘motivated’ Korean chaebols and the tragedy of development in Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines.

China’s Crony Capitalism by Minxin Pei explained the mechanism of how corrupt officials, state enterprise employees and businesspeople managed to bilk the Chinese government and people of vast amounts of money. Much of the challenge is structural. China has a federalised government with power lying at provincial, city and county level. Pei is hawkish on the country’s prospects.

For an outside observer Pei’s research into the mechanisms, one can appreciate the challenge that the central government faces in combatting corruption and bad behaviour. President Xi’s ‘tigers and flies’ campaign to root out the worst corruption in the party and business is part of the solution; but according to Pei there is also careful structural reform required. This will only be possible through a massive aggregation of power towards the centre.

Oprah time: Democracy in Decline by Philip Kotler

When I was in college Philip Kotler was a constant part of my life. His Principles of Marketing was a core text for my degree. It is a bit weird reading another book by Professor Kotler; especially one on such a dramatically different topic.
Democracy in Decline
In Democracy in Decline Kotler addresses what are commonly cited as weaknesses in the political system of the United States. He provides an easy to understand guide to the US political system.  Kotler then gets into what he identifies as the key points of failure in the American political system.

  1. Low voter literacy, turnout and engagement
  2. Shortage of highly qualified and visionary candidates
  3. Blind belief in American exceptionalism
  4. Growing public antipathy towards government
  5. Two-party gridlock preventing needed legislation
  6. Growing role of money in politics
  7. Gerrymandering empowering incumbents to get re-elected forever
  8. Caucuses and primaries leading candidates to adopt more extreme positions
  9. Continuous conflict between the President and Congress
  10. Continuous conflict between the federal and state governments
  11. The supreme court’s readiness to revise legislative actions
  12. The difficulty of passing new amendments
  13. The difficulty of developing a sound foreign policy
  14. Making government agencies more accountable

Kotler’s viewpoint is unashamedly liberal and supportive of collegiate rivalry underpinned by compromise in politics. The White House he envisions is more like the Barlett administration in The West Wing or Star Trek’s United Federation of Planets rather than Hilary Clinton. The flaws he has identified are so big in scale that they would likely require a major re-engineering of American society. From the electoral system, the relationship between federal and state government, public policy and public service.

That kind of re-engineering would require widespread societal approval. That wouldn’t happen in the riven, polarised society of America today. The books measures would be completely against the interests of the conservative movement.

For the European reader, Kotler offers an interesting engaged analysis of the American condition, however there is little to no reflection on the commonalities of national populism in European politics. This book will only provide an understanding of the United States; and that’s ok.

Kotler has a sub-header in the tile of the book ‘Rebuilding the future’. In reality Kotler provides an effective diagnosis, but an not anything that points to an effective solution beyond hoping for the best.

Oprah Time: The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu

The Dark Forest is the second book in Cixin Liu’s Three Body Problem trilogy. I reviewed the first book here. In the second book the tone changes from being a hard bitten conspiracy story to a fully-blown space opera.

The Dark Forest of the title is a metaphor for a philosophical thought experiment. The universe is thought to be teaming with life. Each civilisation is like a hunter in a dark forest. Revealing oneself, leaves one open to being killed by another hunter. Since you don’t know a hunter’s intention it seems better to be quiet. Conversely if you become aware of another civilisation there is a strong incentive to get them before they get you.

Unlike the first book, The Dark Forest takes place over centuries as the protagonist is put into cryogenic hibernation and then woken centuries later. Living in the future provides a warning for readers against the perils of having all parts of our life automated and connected – it delves into similar themes as Michael Crichton’s Runaway.

Liu deals with complex arguments and grand societal change in a masterful way. I am waiting to read the last book in the trilogy Death’s End.

Oprah time: The South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia by Bill Hayton

Hayton sets an ambitious goal for himself to try and unpick the claims and counter claims on territory in the South China sea. It is a massive convoluted story that encompasses colonial powers, oil companies and a plethora of Asian countries.

In the end no one comes out of it with glowing colours. China is easy to paint as a villain and it has played to type. But other countries and major powers have made constant mis-steps and it has become an intractable problem. The more hawkish may see the inevitability of war with China.

On the Chinese side, it makes sense for them to escalate a fight with one of their neighbours; as a Chinese idiom puts it ‘kill a chicken to scare the monkey’ and distract from the pain of change at home.  The history is wrapped up with rising nationalism and aspirations of China and its neighbours.

From the American perspective, it makes sense to have the war with China further away from the Homeland, so the South China sea rather than the Pacific ocean.

Hayton doesn’t take a standpoint one way or the other leaving the reader to decide.

From a reading perspective, the tangled nature of the claims makes the book more difficult to read in small bursts. I tried reading it as a commuting book and it took a while to get it done.

More details on The South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K Dick and Tony Parker

Like many people I was drawn to Do Androids Dream of Electronic Sheep by Bladerunner. I originally read the paperback book and it is one of the few cases where cinema did a better job than the source material. I read the book after I knew about more about Dick’s amphetamine fuelled life and the paranoia associated with speed underpins the story in plot turns affecting our main character.

Tony Parker has done a really good job of interpreting the original and breathing life into it as a graphic novel. He brings it to life to Dick’s work, in particular the phenomenon of ‘kipple’ and philosophy of Mercerism which underpins much of the novel. It is a credit to Parker that he managed to keep the visuals distinct from the iconic style of Bladerunner.

My one criticism of the Parker adaption is that it is an unwieldy book and the  binding comes apart under the weight of the pages. As for the content, I think Parker’s adaption is a better way of taking in Dick’s novel – which has been listed as one of the 100 books you need to read (at least according to the Times Educational Supplement).

Oprah Time: The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu

The Three Body Problem like all the best science fiction is multi-layered. It has a complex story which gradually weaves together a large set of characters across time as the story is told in a non-linear manner. It is also multi-layered in terms of genres:

  • It is a space opera as rich as Asimov’s Foundation books, except it is the aliens who will be doing the interstellar travel
  • It has a conspiracy at the heart of it that reminded me of James Bond novels and John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps
  • It is the tail of of hard-bitten detective work as if Raymond Chandler had been in Beijing; complete with film noir levels of smoking and drinking

But most interesting of all is the mirror it offers on the modern China from the cultural revolution onwards. Liu is unflinching in his depiction of Cultural Revolution excesses.

Like all good authors there are hints of Liu’s early life in a rural part of Henan province during the cultural revolution. He has managed to spin the complex web of a story. The Three Body Problem is the first book in a trilogy – I am looking forward to reading The Dark Forest – the second book.

Currently reading….

I have a couple of books on the go at the moment:

  • Smartphones and beyond: Lessons from the remarkable rise and fall of Symbian by David Wood. Wood was a senior executive at Psion and Symbian. A combination of an extensive email archive and electronic diary allowed him to produce a blow-by-blow account. Much of it is in the weeds, interesting, but tough to tease definitive answers out. I keep reading it in spurts and then going away. A more details review will come once I work my way through this.
  • The Three-Body Problem – Liu Cixin’s book has been applauded as a science fiction classic in both Chinese and Western circles. Liu has won a Hugo award for this book and is the recipient of the Galaxy award (China’s Hugo award, but with a better name) on nine occasions. I have just started on the book but it seems to have contrasting narratives, the first of which is a shocking portrayal of how intellectuals suffered during the cultural revolution. This is my go to book for commuting, expect a full review soon(ish).

Oprah time: Velvet by Brubaker & Breitweiser

In a world of Marvel-dominated culture, it is hard to imagine more realistic material. Ed Brubaker got the freedom to publish Velvet after several years at DC, Vertigo and Marvel.

Velvet is a welcome antidote to the superhero genre of graphic novels. Instead, you get a cold war era spy drama with modern storytelling. Velvet tells the story of a middle-aged Anne Bancroft-like secretary and one-time agent. The story gets going when she is set up for murder by persons unknown.

In this respect, it outlines the kind of spy plot that would be familiar to readers of Len Deighton or Alistair Maclean. Brubaker’s choice of the early 1970s goes back to a pre-cellphone and computer age. This provides him with a broader canvas to work with.

The story feels modern in its non-linear narrative that moves back and forth between 1956 and 1973. The story zips through Europe across both sides of the Iron Curtain as Velvet tries to find who set her up. The comic features highly kinetic action reminiscent of Matt Damon-era Jason Bourne.

The first two volumes of Velvet are available here and here. Volume three is due out in September.

Oprah Time: The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

It’s been nine years since Taleb wrote The Black Swan. Like Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man before it, The Black Swan is widely cited and paid lip service to.

The timing of publication for Taleb was particularly pertinent as the book became popular as the financial system broke down in 2008. Some eight years later, the economy has limped along as financial issues were punted into the future, rather like a child kicking a can down an alley. Like the can, the financial issues are still here to be ran into. I thought it was time to re-read Taleb’s book.

Taleb’s work is philosophical rather than scientific in its method. Although he avoids the talk show friendly cliches of Malcolm Gladwell or Seth Godin. Much of our world is based around the normal distribution, it is used by insurance companies and pension funds to access risk and longevity. Taleb points out that the really big changes that rock the boat often don’t fit neatly within these models.

Taleb’s solution boils down to two things

  1. A defensive skepticism that would encourage the average person to question common wisdom and ask ‘what if’
  2. For those that can afford it, an offensive posture that asks ‘what if’ and has a mix of savings or investments most of which is put in very safe vehicles and 15 per cent or so on high risk speculative investments to take advantage of change

Taleb’s work doesn’t seem to have had the impact that one would have expected just five years ago when it was quoted as a touchstone to modern life.

Much of the excess and risk that had happened previously is happening again, despite a plethora of disruptive forces laid out in the media.

Audiences are paying too much attention to listicles that go something along the line of ‘5 habits you need have to be like Bill Gates’. Where is the critical filter?

More information
McMansions Are Back And Are Bigger Than Ever – There was a small ray of hope just after the Lehman collapse that one of the most lamentable characteristics of US society – the relentless urge to build massive McMansions (funding questions aside) would have subsided
The market’s most crowded trades could be causing dangerous bubbles – Business Insider
Many Middle-Class Americans Are Living Paycheck to Paycheck – The Atlantic
Economic Conditions Snapshot, March 2016: McKinsey Global Survey results | McKinsey & Company
Andy Grove’s Warning to Silicon Valley – The New York Times – Mr. Grove contrasted the start-up phase of a business, when uses for new technologies are identified, with the scale-up phase, when technology goes from prototype to mass production. Both are important. But only scale-up is an engine for job growth — and scale-up, in general, no longer occurs in the United States. “Without scaling,” he wrote, “we don’t just lose jobs — we lose our hold on new technologies” and “ultimately damage our capacity to innovate.
Crap IT means stats crew don’t really know how UK economy’s doing • The Register – and people make accusations about Chinese economic data…
Return of ‘100% mortgages’ ease burden on Bank of Mum and Dad | FT

Oprah time: Heaven’s Bankers – inside the hidden world of Islamic finance by Harris Irfan

I was given Heaven’s Bankers to read as a friend. I can’t say I had thought that much about Islamic finance before. I knew that it had a couple of patches of ‘heat’ behind it in the banking sector. One was in the late 1990s. It then took a back seat post-911 and took off again as Dubai boomed.

It helps that Harris was not only an insider, but passionate about banking in its widest sense. He’s also sickening polymath who is a top flight racing driver.

History never repeats itself, but the Kaleidoscopic combinations of the pictured present often seem to be constructed out of the broken fragments of antique legends. – Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner

Irfan delves into the intricacies of how modern Islamic finance grew and contracted. The industry he provides us an inside view of is now worth a trilliion dollars.  The start of history like most things were pretty straight forward. As the industry grew more arcane and complex financial instruments became the norm. This reminded me of a lot of Mark Lewis’ Liar’s Poker. Lewis dealt with bonds and modern derivatives became so complex customers didn’t understand them. The Savings and Loans debacle of 1985-1996 foreshadowed subprime mortgages.

Where Irfan really excels for the non-banker as reader is in his ability to break down the basics. He takes the concepts many of us learned in business or economics classes back into pre-medieval history. He provides a historical perspective on modern capitalism as we know it. So the book becomes invaluable regardless of how you feel about the current economic system. The background gives you a more informed perspective.

Oprah time: China’s Coming War With Asia by Jonathan Holslag

Where do I start with a book title this inflammatory? I went to the trouble of reading the book twice before starting this review. In the end, the only conclusion I can come to is ‘Policy Faultlines in East Asia’ doesn’t have the same ring to it.
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Holsag marshals a huge range of facts and opinions within the book. If you want to have a basic understanding of modern Chinese state, the book is a good primer.

He provides insight into the Chinese Communist’s Party’s policy cornerstone of territory maximisation. They were happy to put off their agenda for tactical advantage, but never gave up on their goals. China’s neighbours have similar inflexible policy goals. There is is no win-win solution.

Time has brought increased pressures. A fight for resources to fuel further growth and water rights conflicts. Relative declines in economic growth also fuels nationalistic politics. In China, nationalistic sentiments in citizens grew with prosperity. It has become convenient for politicians to tap into nationalistic sentiments.

Holsag doesn’t attempt to provide a solution for de-escalation of these edges. His book only provides a macro-level understanding of the countries involved. For the reader who wants to understand Asia, Holsag’s book is an excellent primer.  More on China’s Coming War With Asia by Jonathan Holsag.

Oprah Time: Being Digital by Nicholas Negroponte

Strictly speaking this is a bit different from when I have written about books. This is the second time that I read Being Digital, the first time was during my final year in college.
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I was curious to know how the book would hold up in the space of 20 years since it was first published. In twenty years we’ve seen televisions shrink as we moved from cathode ray tubes to plasma and LCD displays. The cost of telephone calls has declined, cellphones are really no longer phones but a type of mobile computer that happens to do voice calls poorly. The dominant form of personal computing is Android rather than Windows. The internet has facilitated a raft of services that used to exist in the real world or didn’t exist previously.

In the subsequent 20 years Negroponte has gone from being one of digital’s poster children with a column in Wired and his leading role at MIT Media Lab to a more obscure position in digital history. His biography over at MIT has him listed as sitting on the board of Motorola Inc.

It is easy to dismiss his showmanship and bluster, but the Negroponte did work that foreshadowed in-car sat navigation devices, Google Street View and the modern stylus-less touch screen.

The book first of all emphasises how far we have come when it talks about 9600 baud connections, I am writing this post sat on the end of an internet connection that provides 50mbps download and 10mbps upload – and that’s slow compared to the speeds that I enjoyed in Hong Kong. Negroponte envisioned that satellites would have a greater role in internet access than it seems to currently have, cellular networks seem to have brought that disruption instead.

It has the tone of boundless optimism that seemed to exemplify technology writing in the mid-to-late 1990s but with not quite the messianic feel of peer George Gilder. Negroponte smartly hedges his bets for where the ‘rubber hits the road’ as society brings some odd effects in on technology usage.

Negroponte grasped the importance of digital and the internet as a medium for the provision of media content. That sounds like a no brainer but back in the day the record industry didn’t get it. In fact record industry went on to make blockbuster profits for another five years, N’Sync was the best selling artist of the year in 2000 with No Strings Attached selling 9.94 million copies. Over the next decade or so profits halved in the face of determined record label countermeasures including suing their customers.

Negroponte was dismissive of high definition video and television considering it wasteful of bandwidth. On this I get the sense that he is both right and wrong. We are surrounded by high definition screens (even 4K mobile screens – where their size doesn’t allow you to appreciate the full clarity of the image). But this doesn’t mean that our entertainment has to come in high definition, much YouTube isn’t watched on full screen for instance.

Negroponte grasped that it would also shake up the book industry and Being Digital has been published in a number of e-book reader formats, but at the moment the experience of digital books leaves something to be desired compared to traditional books.

Negroponte labours a surprising amount of copy on tablet devices. At the time that he published his book GO was in competition with Microsoft with pen computing devices and software, EO had launched their personal communicator – a phablet sized cellular network connected pen tablet and the first Apple Newton had launched in 1993. Negroponte goes on to insist that the finger is the best stylus. MIT Media Lab had done research on the stylus-less touch experience, but reading the article reminded me of the points Steve Jobs had made about touch on the original iPhone and iPad.  It is also mirrored in the Ron Arad concepts I mentioned in an earlier blog post.

Negroponte considered that we would be supported in our online lives with agents that would provide contextual content and do tasks, which is where Google Now, Siri and Cortana have tried to go. However his writing implies an agent that is less ‘visible’ and in the face of the user.

Negroponte’s critique of virtual reality at the time provides good insight as to how much progress Oculus Rift and other similar products have made. He points out the technical and user experience challenges really well. If anyone is thinking about immersive experiences, it is well worth a read.

Going back and reading the book provided me an opportunity reflect on where we have come to in the past twenty years and Negroponte’s instincts where mostly right.

More information
Nicholas Negroponte – biography | MIT Media Lab

 

Oprah time: Cultural Strategy by Douglas Holt and Douglas Cameron

I was recommended Holt and Cameron by a client to ‘better help understand their business’. The book is an accessible easy read as business books go. Holt and Cameron propose that culture can be a key defining factor in business success:

  • An organisation culture can make it more resilient or innovative providing a clearly differentiated experience between a brand and its competitors in the eyes of consumers. Their concept of cultural orthodoxy is similar to the red ocean strategy, where companies in mature sectors tend to look alike.
  • By understanding consumers and the cultural context of the product or service, a market opportunity can be found. This is essentially what a good planner does in an advertising agency, but the Dougs look to bake this into the organisation rather than having it as a wrapper at the end of the product process

After reading the book, I am still no wiser about my client was trying to say about their business; but that was more about them than my reading material. This story however emphasises an important point, what may be perceived as a cultural innovation internally in a company may not manifest itself as brand innovation or even a differentiated position.

More information
Cultural Strategy by Holt and Cameron
Cultural Strategy Group