Category Archives: Book Reviews

Go Read a Watchman

Go Set a Watchman

Go Set a Watchman

I hesitate to say this because I am white and I am English, but I am calling bullshit on much of the discussion I have seen about Go Set a Watchman. The discussion about this book  should not be about whether or not it should have been published or whether or not it’s a good book. The discussion should be about racism.

We should be talking about institutional racism (a subject the book raises explicitly and addresses unsatisfactorily). We should be talking about what we do when good people we love expose themselves as racists (the central topic of the book and presumably of Lee’s life, and one it addresses discomfortingly). We should be talking about what we do about changing racist communities we are part of (again a central topic of the book, and one it answers weakly). We should be talking about being a White Ally, especially about being a bad White Ally, and about racism in the Northern States (all things the book exposes, possibly without meaning to). We should be talking about hindsight bias and revisionism, confirmation bias and blind-spots (again, exposed on every page). We should be talking about the links between the easy assumptions of class superiority that Lee makes and the racism she rejects.

These are the elephants in the room and the fact that the conversation is not about any of these things tells us so. And the more that people make the conversation about other subjects, the more they are sticking their fingers in their ears and saying “la, la, la I can’t hear you”.

So, yes, the book should most certainly have been published and yes my friend it’s worth reading. I will go further – I think you should read it because of Charleston, because of Portland, because of Ferguson, because of Mark Brown, because of Trayvon Martin, because all of this is happening now 50 years after Lee drafted the manuscript and submitted it to a publisher.

Is it well written? – Yes, but not as well written as Mockingbird. Get over it.

Will it change your view of Mockingbird? I don’t know.

It changed my view of Mockingbird, though I want to read that book again.  I now think of it as a fairy story and as a dangerous one at that because it’s a way for people to say “Oh, I’m not a racist, I’m Atticus, or Jem, or Scout”. I now see the artifice in Mockingbird: I see Scout’s clear-eyed wisdom as artificial, no six year old was ever that wise. I see also the naïveté in the assumption that Atticus and the Finches could possibly not be racist in a society where people owning other people was still a matter of living memory. It’s hard to read Watchman as a draft not a sequel but at one point in Watchman the adult Jean Louise says to Calpurnia “Please, I’ve got to know. Did you hate us?” and shivers go up your spine as the silence lengthens. Having said that, I link below to clearer-eyed reviews of Mockingbird which see it in a more nuanced light.

Did Lee give full and knowing consent? – I don’t know. She seems worryingly vulnerable, so possibly not. I am however certain that circumstances have given us a double gift, and we should read Go Set a Watchman, engage with it, and be grateful.

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Fiction schmiction

One Day - David Nicholls

One Day - David Nicholls

Occasionally people look surprised when I say I don’t read fiction.  This seems entirely sensible to me.  They make it up, you know.  It’s not actually true. It also tends to be drearily written and about people who are unpleasant or dull or both.  Why would I want to spend a few days of my life in their company?

Case in point: I made an exception and bought a copy of One Day: Twenty Years Two People by David Nicholls.

Little Miss Gullible, I chose it based in part on the reviews quoted in the inside.

One Day - Reviews

One Day - Reviews

One Day - More Reviews

One Day - More Reviews

It’s an interesting conceit, to look at a snapshot of two peoples lives on the anniversary of the same day every year. This appealed to me because I am quietly pleased about the richness and multi-dimensionality which is the gift of getting older. And Mary Wesley and Molly Keane have used the long perspective rather well.

Unfortunately it’s shite.

Thank goodness, the publishers, the puffers and the reviewers who say how absolutely fabulous the emperor looks in his lovely clothes don’t fool all of the people all of the time. Two recent opinion pieces make my point for me more generically and with more authority.

… these days  more or less the only novels allowed to be primarily humorous are chick-lit and lad-lit, and these tend to be gurglingly inane – not the kind of intelligent wit you’d formerly get from Waugh or Kingsley Amis … If you want to be “taken seriously”, you apparently have to be serious, or, more accurately, joyless. – Michael Deacon in the Telegraph

And:

Reading Barnes, like reading so many other English writers of his generation – Martin Amis, McEwan – leaves me feeling that I and the world have been made smaller and meaner. … I wonder, though, where it came from, this petty-bourgeois uptightness, this terror of not being in control, this schoolboy desire to boast and to shock. – Gabriel Josipovici quoted in the Guardian.

I’m with Deacon, though, I want to be intelligently amused.  But alas, One Day, despite being “the funniest, loveliest book” (according to Jenny Colgan) is dreary, demeaning and dull.  The hero is a shallow and selfish and though we are told the heroine is clever and sexy she’s neither of those things on the page.  At one point the narrator comments what wonderful fun times they had together, but are we ever shown them?  Are we hell. The narrative arc comprises the heroine moving from needy to not quite so needy while the hero becomes more and more of a shit.

Dreariness can be excused if you learn something about the human condition. But these two are tediously adolescent throughout. Someone should tell David Nicholls that self-conciousness is not self-awareness. Hero and heroine never relax in each others’ company, they both have the sort of snide inner-observer which adults only release into their minds when they are drunk.

Meh.

It’s back to the non-fiction shelves for me.

Economists, guns and money: war by other means

Red Arrows Display in Portsmouth

Red Arrows Display in Portsmouth - by david.nikonvscanon (click for original)

I think it was at the Fairford Air Tattoo that I realised that people are a proxy for money in war.

The best ways to fatally weaken a country are to

  • destroy large amounts of capital
  • absorb large amounts of revenue
  • cripple the means of production

Wars are just a very noisy way of doing this, on purpose, to a country you don’t like. These days you don’t actually need to kill people but it is traditional because in pre-industrial times people were the means of production.

What I realised at the Air Tattoo was that modern weaponry is just lots and lots of money concentrated into a very small space: young men and women (each of whom cost several hundreds of thousands to train) take an item of equipment (which cost of hundreds of millions to build), and use it to destroy as much of the enemy’s invested capital in the form of people or hardware as quickly and cheaply as possible.

This is one of the reasons for the vastly disparate numbers of Iraqis and Allied troops killed in Iraq. Putting it simply, you have to kill more Iraqi civilians to have the same effect as killing just one Allied service man or woman, because Allied service men and women cost so much more.

Clausewitz told us that war is politics by other means, but it turns out that international finance can be war by other means.  Although I came to this conclusion all by myselfio, I’m not the first or the brightest to do so: while I was checking quotes for this post, I came across the following programmes:

War by other means: John Pilger and David Munro examine the policy of First World banks agreeing loans with Third World countries, who are then unable to meet the cripling interest charges.

And

War by other means: Trade is the lifeblood of the global economy – and it depends on rules decided in tough negotiations behind closed doors. Dr Ngaire Woods of Oxford University investigates.

All this thinking about money and war is because I’m reading Lords of Finance by Liaquat Ahamed. (This post is actually a book review, it’s just taken a time to get there). It’s a history of the crash of 1929. Very pertinent today, which is why I’m reading it. Ahamed is an investment manager, not an academic economist or an historian. He does not merely report the financial history of the 20s, he understands it.

Lords of Finance

Lords of Finance Liaquat Ahamad

Ahamed’s  explanation of the causes and consequences of what the Germans called the Diktat of Versailles is enthralling and utterly depressing. I was shocked to discover  that France’s revenge was made possible by American petulance and British ignorance. I already knew that France’s fear of another war imposed territorial losses and financial reparations on Germany so unjust and so ruinous they caused WWII. It’s clear from Ahamad’s account that this was still war with Germany, but fought with money not guns.

It’s a good book and  if you like your holiday reading to make you think, put it in your hand-baggage.

And since it’s always good to hear Warren Zevon, here he is “after a long day of improbable and grotesque mischief” feeling the need for guns and money, but not apparently economists.

No more kool-aid any more: Sherron Watkins and Enron

Power Failure

  • I am taking an ethical stand
  • You are a whistle-blower
  • He is a grass

The ethical complexities of whistle-blowing tap deeply into the issues of divided loyalties.  It is hard to predict what you’d do faced with this sort of dilemma, and I’ve always been interested in the stories of those who have. Power Failure is co-credited to Sherron Watkins the woman usually described as ‘the Enron whistle-blower’.  I was eager to compare it with Cynthia Cooper’s book Extraordinary Circumstances about blowing the whistle in Worldcom which I reviewed a while ago.

I was curious to understand the differences in the two women’s experiences. Cooper was head of internal audit and her job was to prevent just the sort of fraud (simple, but huge) which she found at Worldcom. The horns of her particular dilemma were her professional accountability vs corporate loyalty. Watkins on the other hand was only one of dozens of insiders expressing concern about Enron both within and without the company, others had leaked for years to market analysts, to the press, even to Yahoo message boards. Watkins just happened to be the one who failed to maintain her anonymity.  The irony is that she kept her concerns within the company, taking them to CEO Ken Lay instead of narrow-casting them outside.

This is one of the few books about Enron not put together from clippings, and it shows.  Swartz clearly obtained access to a number of senior or at least central insiders.  It provides a real sense of why Enron was an addictive place to work, which I’ve not found in any other book.   The only other book with an Enronian’s name on the cover Brian Cruver’s book, ‘Enron, Anatomy of Greed‘, but he arrived late and was just one of thousands of low-level employees dismissed with a $4,000 pay-off just before Christmas 2002.

Reading both these books though, three things stand out for me other than the eye-wateringly huge amounts of money.

The first is the absolute importance of operational controls. Yes, ethics and risk management matter both morally and in business terms, but operational controls come first, because operational chaos not only permits these kinds of fraud it may even require them.  Frequent organisational re-structures and high levels of executive churn are bad signs.  Beware of companies which are overly acquisitive or growing too fast, because things will fall down the cracks.

The second is that it is hard to be faced with the morning-after when you have stopped drinking the kool-aid.  ‘Power Failure’ and ‘Extraordinary Circumstances’ both touch on how difficult it was for Watkins and Cooper to determine what the right thing to do was, let alone how hard it was to do it.  I’d like them to have covered the consequences to themselves in a bit more detail, but I guess we don’t like the idea that good people can suffer for doing what’s right.

Finally, while reading the book I found myself wondering what it is like to be Jeffrey Skilling or Andy Fastow right now, in jail.

Enron was a long time ago and I do feel that I’ve read all I need to on the subject, but Lehmans, Goldman, RBS and HBOS remind us that arrogance, chaos and greed enable companies to fall as well as rise.

PS – ‘Power Failure’ is written in the third person by journalist Mimi Swartz. For a more a direct insight into Watkins herself look at the BBC programme Hard Talk where Watkins exchanges wry regrets with the HBOS whistle-blower, Paul Moore.  (This will only be watchable for another two months).

How will the corporation subvert Web 2.0?

Throwing Sheep in the Boardroom

Throwing Sheep in the Boardroom

It’s an exciting idea, the way that Web 2.0 will transform the world of work, making collaboration the norm by providing wikis, bosses opening up dialogues by posting blogs that are open for comments, replacing meetings with discussion boards.

But before we get to that nirvana, we will have to live with the worrying answers to the question ‘how will the corporation subvert Web 2.0’

In the long term the Luddites always lose. In the long term the organisations which embrace Web 2.o will over-take those which resist it, just as Amazon has flooded out the bookshops and iTunes and Spotify have all but destroyed the the record companies.

What worries me, is the nature of that embrace.

Web 2.0, briefly, comprises the tools and attitudes that enable me to blog and enable you to rate my post and comment on it.  It’s FaceBook and Twitter and citizen journalism and mash-ups and crowd-sourcing and ‘Here comes everybody’.  It’s MySpace instead of A&R  It’s Wikipedia instead of the Brittanica. It’s Twitter instead of… well… instead of no Twitter. Web 2.0, so we all thought, is a force for democracy and good.  It cuts out the parasitical middle-person, it empowers individuals and enables them to form groups and enables those groups to face down corporations and governments.  It puts artists directly in touch with their audience. It enables me to publish this and you to read it with no more cost than our time. It turns base metal into gold and chocolate into a slimming aid.

There are, it seems, two current views of what happens when Web 2.0 meets the Enterprise.  In the first view, Web 2.0 brings about innovative, hierarchically flat organisations where knowledge is freely shared, where anyone who comes up with a bright idea can get it aired and taken up, where discussion boards pwn meetings and where gatekeepers and barriers to innovation are no more.  Google is reported to be just such a place.  The other view is that Web 2.0 and the enterprise are oil and water:  executives and managers will resist Web 2.0 either because they don’t get it, because they think it is a distraction, or because they are just plain running scared.

But I am not convinced by either.  Web 2.0, combined with an internal search engine, are powerful surveillance tools.  Any well-governed Wiki will tell you exactly who made which changes when, and far more neatly than you can track the changes in Word.   You can capture Instant Messenger logs and run searches on them in a way which you cannot tape and search conversations by the water cooler.  Nobody minutes meetings any more, but a discussion forum can be there for as long and the server farm lasts and longer.

Web 2.0 facilitates networks and interactions, but it also makes them more visible, and therefore easier to track.  We already know that the web is destroying privacy.  These days it takes diligence, vigilance and consistency to hide in cyberspace.  It is hard not have your name published by other people when school mates tag you on photos in FaceBook.

So it is surprising that hierarchical organisations don’t espouse Web 2.0 tools more actively, and this supports the theory that this is because execs and managers just don’t get it.

As something of a Web 2.0 evangelist, that places me on the horns of a dilemma.  A trilemma, actually. Do I:

  1. promote Web 2.o tools because they empower people and democratise knowledge
  2. stop promoting Web 2.0 tools because they expose people by turning situations which they are used to considering private into permanent searchable records or
  3. use the argument that they can improve audit and accountability in order to get them into an organisation because they are just so flippin’ COOOL?

For some of the thinking that led me to this impasse see:
Throwing Sheep in the Boardroom – Matthew Fraser & Soumitra Dutta


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Book Review: WorldCom ‘Extraordinary Circumstances’ by Cynthia Cooper

Extraordinary Circumstances

Extraordinary Circumstances

I’ve wondered for a while why there are over half a dozen books about the collapse of Enron, but only two about WorldCom. Maybe it was because Enron happened first.  Maybe it was because Enron disappeared but WorldCom survived in the form of MCI, who presumably have lawyers. Maybe it’s because Enron’s story is sexier and more complex.

One of the few books available about WorldCom was written by the Vice President of Internal Audit, Cynthia Cooper: Extraordinary Circumstances the Journey of a Corporate Whistleblower.  Let’s get the housekeeping out of the way: it’s written in the present tense and has no illustrations, and both these things are constantly annoying.

So what actually happened at WorldCom?  According to Cooper, it was a fairly simple accounting fraud, well hidden but nowhere near as specialised as the off-balance sheet stuff at Enron, and it was committed to save the company not so a Fastow-figure could skim off illicit cream for personal gain. Basically, WorldCom played PacCom in the 1980s and 1990s munching up telecoms and internet companies but failing to integrate them.  Cooper asserts that it wasn’t the fraud or exposing the fraud that killed WorldCom; it became a dead company walking when the internet bubble burst in 2000 and sucked telecoms into its wake.

The most engaging section of the book is when Cooper tells the story of the few months before and after she and her team of internal auditors discovered the fraud, reported it to the internal audit committee and all hell broke loose. WorldCom had become a lumbering Frankenstein’s monster of acquisitions but it had no single set of operating systems. You can only only make savings from acquisitions by doing the boring operational stuff of cutting out duplication and waste. Instead it was faced with the rising costs involved in managing a hodge-podge of companies, falling revenues as telecoms tanked, and a share-price that burst with the bubble, and that was when CFO Scott Sullivan instigated the fraud. WorldCom started making a loss, but Sullivan reported non-existant profits by moving the cost of renting lines from operating costs to capital, to the tune of $3bn over 5 quarters and (according to Wikipedia) by over-stating sales.

The final few chapters of the book are among the most interesting. It’s clear that CFO Sullivan was, as the judge said, the architect of the fraud. Cooper says she could not decide in her own mind about CEO Bernie Ebbers’ guilt. The book is well lawyered, so although these doubts are phrased in the present tense they are located in the section before the jury came to their verdict.But in Cooper’s mind at that time at least the case against Ebbers was not-proven. Ebbers is serving 25 years, mainly on Sullivan’s testimony.  Sullivan has just finished a 5 year jail term.

The case against Ebbers hinged on the financial pressure he was under following the fall of telecoms stocks.  In April 2002 PacCom’s cigar-chewing, cowboy booted CEO packed up his stuff and left. He faced personal bankruptcy. He had been the king of the deal, driving forward to one takeover after another, and Cooper comments on how his personal style changed as he grew in hubris and then fear kicked in. By the end of his tenure he’d cancelled the free coffee and was issuing memos telling staff not to use the colour copiers. All his wealth was in WorldCom stock, and he borrowed against it, so when telecoms stocks collapsed he effectively ended up with ‘negative equity’ to the tune of $300 million dollars. Even so, there is no concrete proof he instigated, encouraged or permitted the fraud.  The only evidence against him was Sullivan’s testimony saying that Ebbers told him to commit fraud quarter by quarter by telling him ‘we must make the numbers’.

It’s hard to tell if this was plausible deniability in action, or a matter of style.  Cooper implies the latter, and the implication that a nod is as good as a wink in the C-Suite, or the C-Suite of WorldCom at least, is one of the other interesting aspects of the book. Because it’s a first person account, Cooper reports what was said and what she thought at various meetings throughout her career.  Most corporate auto-biographies are not about how people interact, being the narrative equivalent of a series of photographs of the mighty hunter clutching his rifle, one foot on an animal’s corpse.  Those biographies leave me wondering to what extent the C-Suite is a foreign country and how differently they do things there. Cooper casts some first-person light on this, and WorldCom appears to have been political and focused but less testosterone-fuelled than Enron, running at a rapid pace on cryptic comments, laconic remarks and inference.  One could argue, though Cooper is careful not to, that Ebbers is a modern-day Henry II.  If so, then the disparity in sentencing is troubling, to say the least.

As a British reader, there were two things I found intriguing which Cooper didn’t even notice.  One is that the main players are actively religious: Ebbers started each board meeting with a prayer, Cooper’s main contact with colleagues out of work is through their Church.  The second is that both WorldCom and Enron were companies located in the South, these are stories of hicks made good who went bad.  That’s not to say the patricians on the East Coast don’t do the same – look at our current banking crisis and the Wall St scandals of the 1980s.  Cooper mentions but does not explore the cultural differences between the various organisations that ultimately comprised WorldCom.

The book (like this review) is over-long and (unlike me) Cooper leaves it up to you to do your own analysis or not as you see fit.  But there is one extraordinary Ozymandias-like vignette:

It’s November, 2004.  The double glass doors to the executive suite are locked.  I peer through to see drops of water leaking from the ceiling in several spots, and a dimly lit room, many of the lights burned out and the remaining ones flickering, a ghostly symbol of the fall of a company and an executive team that once seemed invincible. The guard unlocks the doors and we file in.  Brown cardboard boxes are everywhere, each labeled with the name of a former WorldCom executive. There is barely room to walk. It feels as if we’re somehow trespassing on private property.  I read the names of people I used to work with as we slowly walk through. Bernie’s office is completely empty, not even a hook on the wall.


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Book Review – Throwing Sheep in the Boardroom

Throwing Sheep in the Boardroom

Throwing Sheep in the Boardroom

This very readable book has impeccable academic credentials:  Fraser and Dutta are on the faculty at INSEAD but they wear their scholarship lightly. They consider the effects of Web 2.0 on business and society, and their case studies include FaceBook’s patchy relationship with its users and their employers, the destruction of the music business by the internet, and the 2008 US presidential election. It’s comprehensive and accessible and has a superb bibliography, what more can you want?

Occasionally I disagreed with Fraser and Dutta’s arguments.  They use examples from medieval France and the Knights Templar to illustrate the fracturing of hierarchical power structures.  Now colour me cynical, but would they have done that if it weren’t for Dan Brown?

More seriously, they are naive about the height of the barriers of entry to online fame and pin a lot of the first section of the book on the unsupportable assumption that online fame is open to all. They talk breathlessly (well, breathlessly for academics) about Joe Nobody from Nowhere obtaining online fame. But that doesn’t mean it’s replicable: the fact that they cannot see how it happened doesn’t mean that there weren’t reasons for it happening.  I mean, haven’t they read Outliers?  Online fame doesn’t come for wishing as Sandi Thom’s publicists discovered.  Exactly the same astonishment was expressed about the working class rock heros of the 60s, but for every Lennon and McCartney there were …. well there weren’t any other Lennons and McCartneys.  Which is my point.

They are balanced in their reporting of Web 2.0 evangelists and Web 2.0 apostates. This makes a refreshing change.  In fact, they aren’t just balanced on the subject, they delve deeply into why and how corporate and governmental organisations resist Web 2.0.  This is the nub of the book, and no-one else is saying just these things in quite this way.  But even so, they are reluctant to admit that there are some serious Orwellian implications for all our futures.

So I am not sure why I’m not raving about it.  Perhaps because I like books that give me epiphanies.  This one was rich and informative but didn’t shift any of my paradigms. They close their arguments down in a rather authoritarian way, which doesn’t set the brain fizzing with ideas. It may just be that their usual ‘voice’ is  the de-personalised style of academia.  Don’t be dis-heartened by my faint praise: it is much better than I make it sound.

Definitely a must-read, though possibly in paperback, for anyone considering the role of Web 2.0 in any kind of organisation, or who has an interest in the recent history of the internet or in how technology affects individuals and society.   Worth it for the case studies and the bibliography alone – everything else is a bonus.

PS – I thought I’d reviewed Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell – turns out I hadn’t. That’s easily remedied.


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