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Oprah time: What Happened by Hilary Clinton

Reading Time: 4 minutes

I just had a chance to read What Happened am glad that I didn’t pay good money for this book. I found it both insightful and disappointing in equal measures. Clinton conveys her emotion really well. She also deeply loves power and policy. I don’t mean that in a megalomaniac way; but in a deep love of the job. The emotional release in the writing lacked the kind of intellectual rigour and analysis that she could, but didn’t apply in this book. Clinton is still mystified why she didn’t resonate with Americans.

The sub-text is that it wasn’t her fault she lost to Trump but ‘them’ for disliking her and winning. It felt as if Clinton was writing for insiders.

What Happened

I am sure What Happened would resonate well with:

  • The writing team of The West Wing. If the show got a reboot, this book might be a good choice for tone of voice. I’ve worked with a lot of centre right and progessive public affairs people. They all loved The West Wing. It seems that Clinton does too
  • Political wonks with a centerist stance
  • True Clinton believers

My guess this is partly why my initial reaction is that What Happened was the equivalent of a commemorative programme. She vigorously name checks everyone involved. (I am sure that they’ll buy a couple of copies, in a similar way to selling a high school year book.) Much of her ‘mistakes’ are turned into sins that her opponents or the media clickbait business model. Clinton tries to justify things in the book a bit like the late Paul Allen’s biography Idea Man. Her justification is sometimes dressed up as introspection.

The first part of the book is about coping with grief. One gets the sense of how losing the presidential election was like a death in the family for Clinton and her supporters.

Clinton tries to lead by example to give hope to the middle and right of the Democratic Party that she represented.

Clinton is right about the fallacy of storytelling which provides easy closure for the media and voters. It doesn’t however provide the colour required for serious stories. This was the reason why Italian spaghetti westerns felt more authentic than Hollywood.

She is right that fear identity politics and manufactured legislation gridlock favours small government parties over ‘big government’ parties.

Clinton seems to think that more of the same of her brand of progressive politics is the answer. This seems a world away from the current Democratic Party direction.

Clinton differentiates her stance of listening, rather than Trump’s grandstanding. What also becomes apparent is that Clinton needed to ‘reconnect’ with the public, whereas Trump had the pulse of the zeitgeist. Clinton seemed to have a lack of awareness on this.

Her description of her marketing machine being constructed was interesting. Yet there was other curiously analogue examples of insight. Clinton wants to see how a progessive Democratic candidate will do in the Ozarks. They contact a trusted advisor in the area. He recommends reaching out of a country store owner in the middle of the constituency. The man fed back on how identity politics and government inaction will see the seat go Republican.

Clinton doesn’t seem to take on board how emotion was so important. Secondly, Clinton thought that the togetherness platitudes would not come across as more of the same.

She wants to make sure that you realise data was an early focus on her campaign, but . Clinton praises her team and throws her 2008 team under the bus.

To quote an old advertising maxim:

To sell something surprising, make it familiar; and to sell something familiar, make it surprising

Raymond Loewy

Clinton got this in terms of her visual branding (her appearance) she made her gender as a candidate familiar through her consistent trouser suit uniform, but failed to grasp it in terms of the wider policy approach. She was selling the familiar but failed to make it surprising.

Her description of her daily life tries to imply, ‘I am just like middle-class people you’. But the problem is; middle class people have the time to read four daily papers, or have a residence manager to curate reading materials. Clinton admits that neither her or Bill had nipped to the store for an emergency bottle of milk, since there has always been people helping out since Bill was first appointed Arkansas state governor.

The team’s diet of hot sauce with everything, protein bars and canned salmon is given a good deal of coverage. Artisanal food fetishised in the copy is again middle class virtue signalling. There was no Red Bull, no pizza.

Clinton goes deep into each activity explaining what it feels like to go through things like media training and debate preparation.

It was interesting that the selfie had risen to prominence in Clinton’s election campaigning, compared to her last serious run in 2008. She nails it when she talks about how it limits connection between the politician and the people, eating into brief talk time.

Clinton also does some interesting thinking about what future policy making should look like and how it should be merchandised – as what creative marketers would call ‘the big idea’. Citizens don’t read policy papers, but they remember big, audacious simple things they can grok.

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Oprah time: A Shadow Intelligence by Oliver Harris

Reading Time: < 1 minute

I was given a galley copy of A Shadow Intelligence to read.

TLDR: version of my review is that its a thoroughly modern spy thriller.

The protagonist Elliot Kane is a British intelligence officer who has returned from Saudi Arabia to London. He is sent a video of himself in a room that he’s never been talking to a man that he doesn’t know. Harris takes the reader on a spy story that takes place in the Central Asian republics between China and Russia.

It is a thoroughly modern book:

  • Addressing the confluence of interests between government and businesses going abroad that had long driven policy and actions in Africa and the Middle East
  • Privatisation of military, cyber and intelligence capabilities
  • Technology including modern information warfare over social media channels, fake news and deep fake videos

Kane comes across as a jaded, human bookish character more George Smiley than James Bond. Harris did his research really well. He brings alive the locations and the main characters.

If I had one criticism it would be that the end felt a bit rushed, rather like the author was trying to exceed a word count.

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Oprah time: China’s Disruptors by Edward Tse

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Reading China’s Disruptors by Edward Tse is a great primer on how China’s enterprises are structured differently to foreign companies. The government / private relationship is a complex one. Tse does a good job at explaining it well. This alone is a good reason to read the book.

Tse’s background as China based management consultant and academic provides him with a greater understanding of how the China’s entrepreneurs work.

Innovation

His points about the equal but different status in Chinese versus Western innovation are well made and not given sufficient consideration in non-Chinese analysis of the country.

reading

At the time of publication Premier Xi’s changes were only starting to take root and so one has to take Tse’s writing in that lens. He identifies some of the main reasons why Chinese companies have managed to grow, even where they haven’t had explicit government protection: notably eBay versus Alibaba. It is also noticeable that eBay failed in Japan as well.

Tse didn’t cover how Baidu’s battle with Google in the same depth. Even before Google was banned; Baidu had become the market leader. Google didn’t do as good a job as it should have done indexing the Chinese web. The Chinese web was growing at a faster rate than even Google could have imagined. Google also struggled in other ideogram based language markets like Korea and Japan. This implies a weakness in their core search offering. Baidu has had only limited success outside Chinese language speaking markets.

Optimistic viewpoint

The author takes an optimistic view on the future of Chinese companies abroad. He thinks that Chinese approaches applied to foreign markets will win out. Yet one of the key aspects of Haier’s past success has been extreme localisation.

As an outsider I detect a certain hubris and arrogance in some Chinese companies going abroad.

Wolf culture

Tse doesn’t explore the wolf culture at all. The wolf culture that has been fostered inside some of China’s most notable companies has toxic side-effects on employees and partners. Even within the company it can create a ‘them and us’ division that splits Chinese workers from their non-Chinese colleagues. This is much greater than the grain of sand in a shoe type irritation that you get between US and other western management structures. It’s even greater than the insiders / outsiders friction working in a Korean or Japanese firm.

China acquiring abroad

One of Tse’s examples: Chinese company Sany acquiring German concrete pump company Putzmeister now looks like a high water mark for Chinese acquisition of German technology and knowhow. Tencent buying into Reddit has seen a community pushback that is designed to push the buttons of an increasing assertive Chinese government.

The complex amorphous nature of Chinese company structures, the directive nature of their relationships with the Chinese government and strategic nature of their products has created an equal and opposites reaction in foreign markets. Chinese state companies have had variable success in Belt and Road initiative projects. The service sector growth desired hasn’t kicked in yet as Chinese consumers still prefer to save in preparation for whatever future change throws at them.

Western tire of Chinese tactics and populism rises

There has also been an attitude change in western businesses who have had enough. They’re tired of the regulatory environment and non-tariff barriers being stacked against them. You also see a backlash against globalisation spreading across the western world which will adversely affect China going global.

In conclusion, Tse’s work is an excellent primer, just bear in mind when you read it:

  • Edward Tse has a got a glass half-full perspective
  • The one constant in China is economic and social change
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Oprah Time AngloArabia by David Wearing

Reading Time: < 1 minute

I got sent a copy of AngloArabia and was interested in having a read of it. I grew up at a time when the Gulf states influence grew through OPEC. I started my work life with a brief time in the oil and gas industry. Since then I have moved on through a number of iterations in my career.

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The Gulf states sit in a peculiar part of British history that isn’t generally understood. Wearing goes through the history of the the area from the Trucial states attached to the British rule of India. And brings up to date regarding the UK’s role in the modern Middle East.

The modern relationship between the Gulf states and the United Kingdom blurs the hierarchy between client states and their former colonial master.

Lots of western countries have seen sovereign funds invest with a view to gaining influence. The UK is unique in terms of the Gulf States are bailing the country out. Without the support of Middle East money, the country would be overwhelmed by its current account deficit.

The implication is that the UK government literally can’t afford for any of the Middle East monarchies to fall in an Arab Spring style revolution.

The author David Wearing is a left of centre leaning journalist with wonkish credentials. As with any author, you need to ask yourself about his agenda. He has managed to write a relatively accessible book.

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Oprah time: To kill the truth by Sam Bourne

Reading Time: 2 minutes

To kill the truth is very much a book of our time. It explores the power of historical records, the alt-right and technology. The plot opens with a very current battle between ‘woke’ academia meets the polo-shirted, tiki torch-bearing far right. A former academic has gone to court in order to dispute our understanding of the slave trade and create a revisionist history.

Historical records and accounts were picked apart to cast sufficient doubt on them. By using this legal standard record-by-record the mass of evidence is ignored. The truth becomes lies, rather like social political discussions over Brexit and Trump’s election.

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Then key establishments of historical record start to burn down around the world. Online repositories from websites to Google are brought to their knees by hackers. Into this mess steps a smart wonkish protagonist Maggie Costello. Maggie is tired of the political machine and gets pulled back in. Soon she suffers from online identity theft.

Taking one side Costello’s gender for a moment. Costello feels familiar. This is partly because she is so similar to Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon and Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan. Smart bookish heros who could see what the establishment couldn’t.

The second parallel to Clancy’s work is that characters are secondary to the big ideas and technical wonders. And here lies the book’s achilles heel. Costello has obviously beeen developed as a smart vulnerable ‘woke’ hero. But she feels like a cardboard cut-out rather than a believable character. The androgynous nom-de-plume Sam Bourne hides the identity of Guardian journalist Jonathan Freedland. His wonkish credentials created a great high concept, but he hasn’t managed to create a character that we can root for.

Enjoy the exploration of big contemporary issues, just keep our expectations low on the character development.