Category Archives: books

Your mountain is waiting…

You’re off the Great Places!
Today is your day!
Your mountain is waiting.
So…get on your way!

Today I start a new job in West Dunbartonshire Council. I’m taking up the role of Education Service Manager for Education Development, which sees me leave Education Scotland after a period of five years. It feels like I work in five year cycles looking back, as before that I was working for Argyll and Bute for five years, so it’s a good time to be looking at change.

New starts are always a challenge, as you have a mixture of feelings – excitement about what the future may hold, and a fair bit of trepidation to accompany it, as you question your own ability facing the unknown.

Dr. Seuss had a wonderful story to tell people facing decisions in life. In his wonderfully affirming ‘Oh The Places You’ll Go’ he talks about good times and bad times that people face in life. So for anyone else reading this on a Monday and needing a wee boost of confidence, check out the video above from the Burning Man festival.

Kid, you’ll move mountains

Paniagua

… I started hearing the phrase “riding paniagua.” Sometimes it was delivered in a slightly depressed tone, as if the speaker were talking about riding a particularly slow and stubborn donkey. I might’ve finished higher, but I was riding paniagua. Other times, it was mentioned as a point of pride. I finished in the first group of thirty and I was paniagua. I came to discover that it was really pan y agua– “bread and water.” From that, I made the obvious conclusion: riding without chemical assistance in the pro peleton was so rare that it was worth pointing out. Tyler Hamilton and Daniel Coyle – ‘The Secret Race’

I’ve recently finished reading Tyler Hamilton’s revelatory book ‘The Secret Race’ – the hidden world of the Tour de France. It’s well worth a quick read.

paniagua

Like many cyclists, I’d lost faith in the pro peleton. Even to this day, I struggle to watch the near super-human achievements of the professional cyclists without a massive question of doubt in my mind. For all those that say the days of doping are over, I’m reminded of some that have only just returned from bans, and others that continue to fail drug tests. I can’t help but recognise the faces and names of past riders that now work on the team administration side of the sport whose performance was at best questionable in the past, and at worst proven to be performance-enhanced. The sound-bites of the present winners don’t help regain my confidence, either. Chris Froome (who I desperately want to believe rides the race clean) said in one interview “time will tell that I’m clean” – why will time tell? What will the future reveal that you can’t say now? You’re either clean or not…

I suspect I’d been duped by the question avoiding tactics of Lance Armstrong in the past – “Have you ever taken performance enhancing drugs?” – answer “I’ve never failed a drugs test” – isn’t technically the answer to the question posed, but left me with a shred of belief – if he wasn’t clean, how could he beat the drugs tests?

With all of this at the back of my mind, it was fascinating to read Tyler Hamilton’s story. How the sport was awash with drugs, but not talked about due to the cyclists ‘omerta’ – or code of silence. The systematic doping and transfusion programme the riders participated in, in order to beat the drug tests and maintain an artificially high advantage over their rivals. The underworld and suppression culture that presented to the world one image, whilst living a total lie underneath.

I was left wondering about the notion of ‘pan y agua’ – only on bread and water. I love the similarities to Occam’s razor that this brings out in my mind. If you were to strip back all the things we add on in life, to try to return to a simple way of life, could you manage it? In a competitive world, would you still be able to keep pace with your colleagues or competitors? Think about all the assistance you get to perform simple daily tasks. To do the things that you do on a regular daily basis – could you perform ‘pan y agua’?

You can get Tyler Hamilton’s book on Amazon – I’d recommend it as a good quick read.

Image credit: markb120.

Sharing your working

The recipe for perpetual ignorance is: be satisfied with your opinions and content with your knowledge. – Elbert Hubbard

math_working

In the book ‘Crowdsourcing‘ by Jeff Howe, he quotes a wonderful example of the community of MATLAB users working to solve a problem:

Contestants were required to solve what is commonly called a “traveling salesman problem,” the classic example of which asks for the shortest possible round trip a salesman can take through a given list of cities. Participants submitted a solution in the form of an algorithm, or computer code that directed the salesman through a number of steps. The contest ended after ten days, at which point the most efficient algorithm would be declared the winner.

But [Ned] Gulley added an extra twist: Participants were allowed to steal each other’s code in order to create a better solution. Every time a new solution was sent in, it was quickly scored, ranked and posted to the Web site. Every other contestant could then see the programming code, in full. They could cut-and-paste the best bits and resubmit it with any improvements, however minor. If the tweaks, as Gulley calls them, created a more efficient algorithm, it vaulted the contestant into first place, even if he or she had only changed a few lines of code.

When I used to speak about development, I would often use this example. What fascinates me is not the open approach to solving the problem – this approach is used the world over. What fascinates me is how successful it was: 

But the extraordinary aspect of MATLAB isn’t the fervor it inspires, but the fact that the ten-day hurly-burly—in which all intellectual property is thrown into the public square to be used and re-used at will—turns out to be an insanely efficient method of problem solving. The contest has been held twice a year since its inception in 1999. On average, Gulley notes, the best algorithm at the end of the contest period exceeds the best algorithm from day one by a magnitude of 1000.

Is this how you approach problem solving? Do you open up your working to others? This is after all, how the world works. As Isaac Newton remarked, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”*. We all make use of the findings of others, but how prepared to share are we? Is the goal the finding of the solution, or the kudos of being the winner? In a time when the majority of information we require is at our fingertips, are we good at sharing? How much do we personally contribute to this melting pot?

If you’ve not read ‘Crowdsourcing’, I’d highly recommend it. You can get your own copy from Amazon.co.uk

Image credit: Evan_Terada.

* – I love the quote from Newton – but I love the circumstance even more. His comment could easily be taken to be a barbed insult to his rival Robert Hooke – widely believed to be the originator of some of Newton’s ideas, and a man of somewhat short stature.

The Road

“What’s the bravest thing you ever did?
He spat in the road a bloody phlegm. Getting up this morning, he said.” – Cormac McCarthy, The Road. 

It’s odd to review a book that you’re actually in the process of reading, but I’m finding this one so compelling that I don’t want to wait.

barren_tree

The Road, presents a vision of a post apocalyptic future where a father and son journey south across a barren ash filled landscape. Along the way, they encounter very few other travellers (‘bad guys’ and ‘good guys’), who they are instantly wary of – in a post apocalyptic landscape devoid of other life, humanity seems to have resorted to cannibalism.

“You have to carry the fire.”
“I don’t know how to.”
“Yes, you do.”
“Is the fire real? The fire?”
“Yes it is.”
“Where is it? I don’t know where it is.”
“Yes you do. It’s inside you. It always was there. I can see it”

We the readers don’t know much about the ‘man’ and the ‘boy’, or indeed what caused the apocalypse. We know that the ‘wife’ or ‘woman’ left the family early on into the post apocalyptic world, we presume to kill herself away from the plight of the man and boy. We know they journey with only the possessions they carry in their bags or shopping trolley. We know they have a gun with only two rounds left in it, to use ‘when the time comes’. Every day is a struggle for food and survival. Every day is a love story about father and son.

You have my whole heart. You always did.

McCarthy has a beautiful way with prose, that is not pretentious or indeed overly simplistic. I’m reminded of the great quote from Pascal “If I’d had longer it would have been shorter”, as he seems to wonderfully convey the required sentiment easily, without resorting to unnecessary verbosity (unlike me!). What interests me here however is that on the face of it, it’s a really dismally bleak subject to read about – yet it is utterly compelling as a book.

By day the banished sun circles the earth like a grieving mother with a lamp.

I was fascinated to read that the book is widely hailed as one of the most significant environmental books, as it sets out an environment where the biosphere has ceased to function. It’s a chilling prediction on what could happen if we don’t curb our excess of our natural resources.

Perhaps in the world’s destruction it would be possible at last to see how it was made. Oceans, mountains. The ponderous counterspectacle of things ceasing to be. The sweeping waste, hydroptic and coldly secular. The silence.

The book raises interesting questions about our behaviour post-apocalypse. In the absence of food, what would you do to preserve life? When all around you seems hopeless, what does it take to make you carry on?

He knew only that his child was his warrant. He said: If he is not the word of God God never spoke.

It’s been turned into a great film, which I’d heartily recommend (I know, I know – I’d have been better talking about this yesterday than Katy Perry!)

“How would you know if you were the last man on Earth?” He said.
“I don’t guess you would know it. You’d just be it.”
“Nobody would know it.”
“It wouldn’t make any difference. When you die it’s the same as if everybody else died too.”

Nicola and I are reading this, and have had a number of conversations about this one point: Does the man display a great courage to strive on and find a way for them to live despite the apparent bleakness of their situation, or does he rather display cowardice not to end it? He has a gun that could put an end to their suffering, yet they journey on. What do you think? Answers on a postcard (on in the comments) please!

“Listen to me, he said, when your dreams are of some world that never was or some world that never will be, and you’re happy again, then you’ll have given up. Do you understand? And you can’t give up, I won’t let you.”

Image credit: Feldbum, made compellingly bleak by me 🙂

The Winter of our Disconnect

The information paradox- that the more data we have, the stupider we become- has a social corollary, too: that the more frantically we connect, one to another, the more disconnected our relationships become. – Susan Maushart

I mentioned this book last week, so it seemed only right to say a bit more about it this week. ‘The Winter of our Disconnect’ by Susan Maushart plots the experiences of one Australian family during a winter giving up technology, the affect that it had on them both as individuals and as a family, and what the experience ultimately taught them.

The parallels with Thoreau’s ‘Walden’ are considerable, but it would be fair to say that Thoreau’s sacrifice was perhaps greater!

I first heard about Susan Maushart’s book on Women’s Hour on Radio 4 (don’t ask – it’s not like I seek out such programmes – the radio in the bedroom was still on when I went back in at one point – honest…), and I loved the concept. As someone who uses a great amount of technology in life, I immediately posed myself the same question – could I give up technology? What would I gain? What would I lose? How would I feel about it? At the time, my job greatly involved technology, so I’m afraid I almost gave up the notion at that precise moment. How could I? Ridiculous.

The concept hung with me though, and I quickly bought the book. I was desperate to hear how it affected both her and her children, and what it did to their understanding of both time and relationships. I’d heartily recommend it. She has an easy flowing style, which transverses narrative, scientific reportage and journal, making for a compelling enjoyable read. Here are a few of my favourite quotes:

Giving up one activity does not guarantee you will take up a more worthy substitute.

I love this – asking anyone to stop one activity doesn’t mean that they’ll suddenly write sonnets or paint masterpieces! Perhaps one of the hardest challenges we face is actually knowing how to occupy our time well.

She spends a fair amount of time considering the neuroscience behind our technological activity:

No one’s brain is different enough to make constant interruptions, distractions, and task-switching an optimal environment in which to function.

This is a pet interest of mine, and I’m sure I’ll return to it in another post, as I think I’ve read more than my fair share about it. Whether we like it or not, neuroscience would show that we are becoming different creatures as a result of our interaction with technology.

She also considers another pet interest of mine – what we’ve done to the term ‘friend’:

‘Friend’ requires an adjective these days, since it otherwise feels empty.

As anyone who has witnessed me claw a table in disgust at the utterance of the phrase ‘critical friend’ (that hurt even to type!), I despair about what we’ve done in the last 15 years to the word ‘friend’. People often look at me blankly over this, as they don’t seem to understand that we’ve lost something of untold value. As human beings, we don’t have 1,000 of friends – we have 1,000 of acquaintances. We may have dozens of friends, and a handful of true companions – that’s how we differentiate. More on this to follow, certainly!

One last quote from the book:

SMS made everything negotiable: hour by hour, minute by minute. There was no such thing as a firm plan or a final schedule.

One snowy winters day at the beginning of the 1990’s I once waited for a friend to show up who turned out to be over an hour late. We didn’t have mobile phones, and I knew his sense of timing was woeful, so I hung around until he showed up. We’d made an arrangement after all – a certain place, at a certain time. Now we don’t do that, and we are definitely the poorer for it. Time is precious – we’re at the verge of losing this the same way we’ve lost the meaning of friendship.

If you haven’t read it, then get hold of a copy. You won’t be disappointed. You can get it here on amazon.co.uk. If you know someone who is addicted to technology, this is the ideal antidote in the form of a great Christmas present! Who knows, they may even put down their smartphone long enough to read it?

 

Footnote: When I write these ‘Thursday’ posts about my favourite reads, I’m either armed with my paper copy of the book itself, and my neatly folded corners telling me where there were good sections or quotes (sometimes I have a note file in my phone simply with page numbers of quotes to return to), or better still – the digital copy of the book that I’ve read, with the joyous convenience of a device that tracks sections of the book that you highlight and puts them all together in one gloriously simple list (btw, the jury came back in on the paper/digital divide a while ago). This time, I had neither to draw upon! I gave my copy to a colleague a long time ago in a fit of enthusiasm (as happens all too often with my favourite books!), and never got it back. So, nameless book thief – If you’re reading this musing (and you know who you are!), I’m not looking for the book back. Please just make sure that once you’re read it, you pass it on (hmmm… can’t do that with a digital copy, though eh? Maybe the jury is still out after all!) 😉

Image credit: govan riverside.

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately…

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life – Henry David Thoreau

What if we could strip away distractions in life, and consider only that which is necessary to live? To undertake such a task in the middle of the 19th century would be incredibly challenging, but it was to this very task that Henry David Thoreau dedicated himself between 1845 and 1854. ‘Walden’ , or ‘A life in the woods’ is a beautifully written book set around a remarkably simple premise, and full of fascinating insights into life itself; asking us to consider what it is that we value.

If you’ve seen the film ‘Dead Poet’s Society’, you’lll be familiar with arguably the most famous line from the book, but to only know about ‘sucking out all the marrow of life’ and not the rest of the book makes us poorer. Indeed, the very paragraph before in the book states this:

We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep.

As someone who spends a significant amount of time using technology, I love this statement. He exhorts us to concentrate on nature and how it’s rhythm helps us keep order. We’re very quick to look for something else to help us with such tasks!

Thoreau encourages us to keep our affairs small in number – again, a great challenge for us today with our technological distractions:

 Our life is frittered away by detail. An honest man has hardly need to count more than his ten fingers, or in extreme cases he may add his ten toes, and lump the rest. Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand.

Outside of those in religious orders, I don’t think I know anyone that does this. We seem to live such complex lives, but his challenge to us is to pare back and consider what it is that we seem concerned about that is important. His reason as to why we do not do this is striking:

I perceive that we inhabitants of New England live this mean life that we do because our vision does not penetrate the surface to things.

Brutal. Yet alarmingly true. All too often we don’t consider the depth of a subject, and go along with something because it’s easier to do so, or perhaps expected that we do.

Much of the book is rightly concerned with answering the question of being solitary, and whether we require society. Concerning property and posessions:

I am convinced, that if all men were to live as simply as I then did, thieving and robbery would be unknown. These take place only in communities where some have more than is sufficient while others have not enough.

Cultivate poverty like a garden herb, like sage. Do not trouble yourself much to get new things, whether clothes of friends. Turn the old; return to them. Things do not change; we change.

On morality:

Our whole life is startlingly moral. There is never an instant’s truce between virtue and vice. Goodness is the only investment that never fails.

On self discovery:

…be a Columbus to whole new continents and worlds within you, opening new channels, not of trade, but of thought.

Why did I read Walden? I read Susan Maushart’s ‘The Winter of our disconnect’, where she and her children undertook a similar exercise with technology. Throughout the book, she referred to Walden, and I felt there was a great gap in my reading, or indeed my understanding of how we approach material possessions or artifacts in life. Whilst the focus of the book centres around his experience in the woods and what it taught him about value and social interraction, the book was really written as a political treatise. Indeed, the final section of the book ‘On the duty of civil disobedience’ is a bold questioning of government. I have no real interest in this section of the book, as my interest was piqued by how we approach our attachment to materialism.

Would I recommend it? Yes, I would. Whilst some sections make for difficult reading, his turn of phrase at times is beautiful. To spend time considering such a fundamental question of what do we need in order to live a fulfilled life, we could do a lot worse than spending some time reading Thoreau – even if we too arrive at his conclusion:

I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one.

The joy of a book this old is that you can find it for free to download in Project Gutenberg.org, or if you prefer a physical copy, then get it here at amazon.co.uk. Enjoy!

Image Credit: StarrGazr.

If you’re reading a good book, you’re not wasting time.

At school I was taught English by a chap named Richard Maudsley who would have us start each lesson in silent reading with the phrase “If you’re reading a good book, you’re not wasting time”. He would then sit quietly working on something himself, whilst the class read the book they had each brought with them.

Whilst I may not have enjoyed school much, I loved these five minutes at the start of his lessons. It was wonderful to be given time in school to do something you had complete control over without any interruptions. Occasionally, he would look up during this five minutes and ask someone what they were reading. He’d ask them to briefly summarise it, and to say what they thought of it so far. Clearly a well read man, from his own experience he would then suggest other books that they might like to read if they were enjoying that one, or if they weren’t enjoying it, make other suggestions that they might like to consider.

There has never been a better time to read than now. Public libraries are an absolute goldmine, and online there are cheaper and cheaper ways to buy books, or to read books for free from the vast online libraries that exist.

Each Thursday, I’ll share my thoughts about a book that I have read that has made an impression on me. Where it exists online for free I’ll share a link to it, so that you can read it yourself. Where it doesn’t exist online, I’ll share a link to amazon.co.uk where you can buy it for yourself. Please note that I am affiliated to amazon.co.uk, so I may recieve payment for any purchase you make as a result of following a link from my site. In no way does amazon.co.uk influence the choice of titles I may discuss.

Image Credit: T1m0thy77.