About Me

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Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

"Reengineering the corporation" by Michael Hammer and James Champy

This supposed classic, updated in 2001, is rather disappointing. Its big idea is that businesses processes that are broke need fixing (sometimes even before they are recognisedly broke). But the fixing cannot be little incremental tweaks, it must be radical.

The way in which their success stories have reengineered has been (a) to move away from the fracturing of tasks that characterised the Adam Smith division of labour and Henry Ford's assembly line production and (b) to use information technology. The authors are at pains to point out that the use of IT by itself will not revolutionise businesses but it is equally clear that none of the proposals they make could succeed without IT.

Another idea is that they have to consider customer satisfaction because nowadays customers demand almost personalised choice.

They also point out that a company is people. However, many of their success stories involve sometimes significant down-sizing. They get angry about workers resisting change suggesting that many businesses cannot survive without their radical reengineering proposals but they fail to see that the workers facing redundancy may prefer a few more years of staggering on before the business goes bust to immediate dismissal.

I did like their characterisation of a hierarchy as being inherently resistant to change: "For an idea to win acceptance, everyone along the way must say yes, but killing an idea requires only one no."

One of their solutions relies on the fact, probably true, that the vast majority of customer requests are effectively the same so that a small number of standardised processes can cope with them. In other words, a process triage can divert 95% of tasks to be done quickly by cheap less trained staff using standard templates or scripts and then send the remaining 5% to the specialists. Therefore part of reengineering involves creating standard process templates for workers to use.

I liked the following quote: "To understand what is being changed a team needs insiders; but to change it, a team needs a disruptive elements. These are the outsiders."

Another idea they include is benchmarking. In fact they have included a lot of ideas all of which I have encountered elsewhere. But they claim that only when all these ideas are put together in the reengineering package will years achieve the radical improvements they are touting.

I was confused by this quote on page 195. "There is no guesswork or subjectivity involved in deciding these rewards [performance pay bonuses]. They are based on subjective measures."

Overall this book contained a few ideas I had met before packaged together. There was a lot of padding. In particular the three new chapters which are detailed case studies of three companies. These were unnecessary but without them I guess they couldn't have sold another book.

September 2014; 246 pages.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

"Howards End" by E. M. Forster

EMF combines feather-light Jane Austen style drawing room comedy with a biting social commentary in a driving plot which travels inexorably towards tragedy.

The Schlegels are two sisters and a brother of independent means whose essentially frivolous lives are redeemed by a clear understanding that they are privileged and that the underprivileged who support them lead lives of struggle. Sometimes clumsily, but always with the best intentions, they try to better the lot of the poor.

They interact with the Wilcoxes. Mr Wilcox is a businessman whose fortune comes from West Africa. As a self-made man he is convinced that those who have not made it are poor through their own failures. He uses and abuses the people who work for him and his son, George, does so even more. Only his wife, who is the old money owner of Howards End, is a spiritual Schlegel.

The doom of the Wilcoxes is sealed when, in a family conference after Mrs Wilcox has died, jointly decide that her wish to leave Howards End to Margaret Schlegel should not be honoured since it has no force in law.

But then Mr Wilcox decides to marry Margaret.

Mr Wilcox is, for me, the most fascinating character. Despite being, on the surface, the brutalist Mr Moneybags he marries, twice, women who represent the good sense of upper middle class England, rooted in its soil. He may scare his children, dominate his women and fight against the quiet rural life but at the same time he marries Margaret, possibly from guilt, and at the end he retires quite gracefully.

But all the characters are great from Leonard Bast, a clerk who seeks a spiritual life in books by Ruskin which tell him how to appreciate beauty, to Mrs Bast, the buxom earth goddess he has married against the wishes of his parents, to rash Helen and sensible Margaret, the Schlegel sisters acting out Austen's Dashwood sisters into potentially rash marriages, to George's wife who is so concerned about money.

But where Forster is particularly brilliant is the way he juxtaposes lines to highlight his social commentary. After Helen has inadvertently stolen Mr Bast's umbrella and he has come to her house to retrieve it she hunts through an assortment of similarly purloined brollies and opens one to see if it belongs to Mr Bast: '"What about this umbrella?" She opened it. "No, it's all gone along the seams. It must be mine." But it was not.' And Mrs Munt, Margaret's aunt declares that  "Germans are too thorough" a few lines before '"Of course I regard you Schlegels as ... English to the backbone."'

A brilliant book by the brilliiant author of the brilliant Where Angels Fear to Tread and the even more brilliant A Room With a View and the courageous Maurice.

Brilliant. September 2014; 340 pages

"Jamrach's Menagerie" by Carol Birch

Jaffy, an eight year old boy, encounters an escaped tiger on the Ratcliffe Highway and subsequently becomes employed by Mr Jamrach to look after the animals in his rather exotic per shop. This leads to him going to sea with his best friend Tim and animal hunter Dan Rymer in search of a Dragon from the South China Seas. Adventures and horrors ensue. This last section of the book seems to draw on the real story of the whaling ship Essex as recounted in Nathaniel Philbrick's In the Heart of the Sea.

This was well-written with a real feel for character, dialogue and setting. Jaffy is a lovely character, a dirt-poor Londoner with two jobs at eight years old and not a trace of 'poor me': this is the way life (and death) is and he explains it clearly. The supporting characters are also brilliantly drawn and I particularly loved the way that the ship's crew, more than a dozen, were characterised up to the limit of Jaffy himself knowing them: after one has died Jaffy bemoans the fact that he didn't know him well enough. I adored the careful blend of innocence and knowingness that makes up Jaffy, who is a virgin for most of the book but a pipe smoker from almost page one.

But I was confused by the plot construction. On the one hand I understand that if you are telling someone's life it isn't likely to be a straightforward journey. On the other hand: why was it called 'Jamrach's Menagerie' when that forms a relatively small part of the plot? Is this a metaphor? Are the members of the crew of the ship like the animals captured and confined in Mr Jamrach's pet shop? And is the encounter with the tiger another metaphor, perhaps for the jaws of death? And why the dragon?

And the pace was interesting too. I read quite slowly at first. I was more than half way through before I really wanted to know what happened in the end. And the first part of the book is wide ranging with a lot of incident and different characters and conversations but the last part of the book is much more intense with a lot more soliloquy. I was impressed that the writing was good enough to keep me going in this last bit although it was there that I was reading fast and perhaps missing some of the nuances.

A bit of a rag bag in construction but beautifully written. September 2014; 344 pages

This book was nominated for the 2011 Booker along with Pigeon English but they both lost out to A Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

"Open" by David Price

This immensely readable book starts with the author having a heart attack!

In many ways it follows the 'industry standard'. Price has a vision of the future of education which he wants to share with us. It is an education transformed by the practices which have transformed (part of) the business world since the massive disruption to the ecosystem known as the internet revolution. He outlines this vision by giving examples (mostly from the business world because education hasn't really been transformed yet) in which visionaries have transformed their industries. Many of these examples have been mentioned in similar books: an example is the development of Post-It notes by 3M. Price then distils the lessons to be learned from these examples into general principles: Share, be Open, be Free, and Trust. The major difference between Price's book and others such as 'The World is Flat' is that Price then applies these rules to the world of education.

But this is a cracking good read which uses its evidence base to entertain whilst providing 'eureka moment' insights and making you think. Not bad!

Price begins with a compelling analysis of the post-internet world. The knowledge economy has rather blown up in our faces: more graduates means that the laws of supply and demand have driven the monetary value of knowledge down as evidenced by  freelance auction sites such as elance.com. He looks at 'open' systems such as the Philosophy in Pubs movement and ‘open source learning’.

He indicts formal learning in traditional education settings. He rehearses the dichotomy of transmissive learning versus constructive learning and suggests that apprenticeships and internships offer blends between the didactic and experiential. Bravely, he asserts that: "We should be in no doubt that businesses, schools and colleges that continue with ‘command and control’ as their dominant forms of leadership and intellectual property strategies are facing extinction, possibly within five to ten years." He wants to see collaborative learning as the dominant model in schools: "If collaboration is a headache for learning in the workplace, it’s hard to know where to start with schools. First, most schools don’t call it ‘sharing’ anyway – they call it ‘cheating’."

Price seeks a new model for education which he calls the Global Learning Commons whose characteristics are participation, passion, purpose.

The six imperatives of the Global Learning Commons are:

  • "Do it yourself [eg Linux, wikipedia]
  • Do it now [eg Just in time learning]
  • Do it with friends 
  • Do unto others
  • Do it for fun [eg foldit, a video game which helps scientists work out protein folding in viruses]
  • Do it for the world to see" [eg that food blog from the scottish kid]

He considers 'Just in time' learning: "learning is most powerful when the learner acquires a piece of
information to solve an immediate problem.... there’s a reason why you get the airline safety briefing when the engines are running, and you’re buckled-up, and not when you’re booking your ticket."

He has some great one-liners (some are above):

  • Over-testing is like "a gardener pulling up a plant by its roots so that he could see how well it was growing. If a love of learning were a human right (and I contend that it should be) our courts would be overflowing with abuse of rights claims from our young." [OK, that was a two-liner.]
  • "Learning doesn’t really work as a spectator sport, as any disengaged school kid will confirm."

I have one or two quibbles:

  • I would contend that the anti-authority revolution started long before the world wide web, perhaps beginning with the growth of universal state education (even if it is too formal). As Steven Pinker has suggested in The Better Angels of Our Nature, literacy enables people to read and therefore to become exposed to ideas and, especially in novels, to start to see the world through the point of view of someone else. 
  • Surely the example of the BRICs in Chapter One emphasise the need to develop a better knowledge economy even though an inevitable consequence is that the monetary value of knowledge will reduce as supply outstrips demand.
  • The 'Libert√©, Egalit√©, Fraternit√©' motto was coined before 1835.
I was a little disappointed that the evidence base was a little narrow and relied heavily on the old favourites such as wikipedia, Google and 3M.

But on the whole this is a brilliantly readable and thought-provoking book. September 2014; 152 pages

Sunday, 14 September 2014

"The Case of Charles Dexter Ward" by H. P. Lovecraft

This horror novella was a significant improvement on At The Mountains of Madness.

Charles Dexter Ward has just disappeared from a lunatic asylum after an interview with his family doctor which has left the doctor reeling from unimaginable horrors. The story is told to explain this.

Charles is researching into his family tree. He discovers an ancestor, Joseph Curwen, who was involved in strange experiments and nefarious goings on in just-pre-revolutionary Boston. We learn more about what happened then; it becomes clear that Curwen is conjuring up spirits.

As we move back to Ward, the boy's behaviour becomes stranger. There are mysterious happenings in local graveyards. There are strange noises from his attic room. At last he is moved into an asylum. The good family doctor goes to his house and discovers a secret passage; in the catacombs beneath are unnameable horrors and magic incantations. The doctor somehow escapes with his life (we never find out how) and the secret passage is mysteriously sealed up.

Ready for the final confrontation in the asylum...

A good horror yarn which actually made me close the curtains against the darkness outside.

September 2014; 159 pages

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

"At the Mountains of Madness" by H.P.Lovecraft

Lovecraft is one of the formative influences on later horror. His style is in transition from the long-windedness of the Victorians towards the brevity of his contemporary H. G. Wells.

This book tells of an Antarctic expedition which discovers traces of a lost civilization in an awesomely high mountain range. It has all the classic Atlantean elements: the highly intelligent Old Ones become decadent and are finally overwhelmed by a combination of the harsh elements and Shoggoth beasts that they have genetically engineered to be their slaves. The narrator, a polar scientist, describes his investigation of the lost city of the Old Ones in which he and his partner discover far more than any scientists could do in less than 24 hours, mostly from what must be a great number of highly detailed sculptures left by the Old Ones. It is all a bit far-fetched.

There is a fantastic amount of description about the lost city which serves virtually no plot purpose. The entire plot could be summarised ina few pages. The rest is just padding.

For horror effect, Lovecraft relies on his own failure to describe things. Heights and distances are 'immeasurable'. Horrors are 'nameless'; numbers 'incalculable', reality 'ineluctable', odours are 'unknown'. This is a clever technique but he uses it so much that it becomes almost a parody of itself.

He also refers back to his imaginary world repeatedly. Thus he references the Necronomicon, written by the Mad Arab, again and again. Not subtle!

I suspect this book was influenced by Edgar Allan Poe's The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket which ends in a strangely warm Antarctic with a tribe of hostile men.

Even at short novella length this dragged. September 2014; 139 pages

Friday, 5 September 2014

"Last Exit to Brooklyn" by Hubert Selby Jr

Banned as obscene in British courts in 1967, Last Exit to Brooklyn is a stream of consciousness style collection of interlinked stories about poor people in Brooklyn. Each story is introduced with a Biblical quotation. Then the action gets going. In long paragraphs in which people think or talk or argue and using many phonetically spelt words such as krist and fukim, Selby captures the rhythms and the styles of his characters.

And what characters they are. We start with a scene at the Greeks which ends when the boys go out and beat up a sailor from the naval base. Then we discover Georgette. 'She' is a fairy addicted to benzedrine. After getting cut in the cross fire of a Harry and Vinnie knife throwing competition she is sent to the place she dreads most, her home, where her brother tells her off for being a fairy, and then she sneaks out and goes to a gin and benzedrine fuelled party with other fairies and ends up sucking Vinnie's cock, Vinnie being her ex-prison rough trade boyfriend.

Tralala is a young girl who discovers that she can get money by being laid by drunken sailors and then stealing their money when they pass out. She enjoys this and enjoys the sex but she becomes addicted to this way of life and ends up a pathetic tart being gang-banged by by the boys from the Greeks.

Harry is shop steward at an engineering works and causes a great deal of trouble. The management engineer a strike hoping to get rid of him. He finds purpose in the strike although at the same time he discovers a strange attraction for cross-dressing gay men. His role in the strike enables him to spend big, charging it to expenses at the corrupt union. But when the strike ends his life outside drag bars has lost its meaning and his boyfriend throws him over because he can't lavish money on her so he ends up pathetic and beaten up.

Finally there is a 'coda' which explores a number of interlinked lives at the Housing Project. The men are useless, mostly out of work but unwilling to help their wives at home and with the kids, the women are long-suffering, taking a great deal of abuse for the sake of their husband's hard cock at the end of the day. The children just suffer. No life is happy, even the slightly more couth ones.

This is a depressing nightmare vision of life in America's underclass. But it is brilliantly written.

Difficult to read but fantastic. September 2014; 240 pages