Week(ish)note — a summer break and a bunch of reading

Following Matthew Cain’s lead, this weeknote is a summary of what I’ve been reading over my summer break. Having the time to actually read whole books again still feels like a novelty and is definitely a parenting milestone!

(I’ve cheated slightly here though, as I was half way through two of these books before we started our holiday and I haven’t finished the last one yet.)

How Democracy Ends, David Runciman (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/jun/21/how-democracy-ends-david-runciman-review)

I discovered the Talking Politics podcast (https://www.talkingpoliticspodcast.com/about/) through listening to the talk which led to this book, and that’s now a regular feature in my podcast listings. The book covers lots of ground, from considering whether there actually is anything inevitable and permanent about democracy as we currently know it, to looking at the key threats to that, and then suggesting where we might go from here. Thought provoking and worth a read.

Fire and Fury, Michael Wolff (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/jan/14/fire-and-fury-michael-wolff-inside-trump-white-house-review)

Not the most high calibre of my summer reading choices, but entertaining nonetheless.

(I’m considering giving Bob Woodward’s new book a look for another perspective on the Trump White House: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/aug/12/woodward-bernstein-watergate-donald-trump-era)

Programmed Inequality, How Britain Discarded Women Technologists and Lost Its Edge in Computing, Marie Hicks (http://programmedinequality.com/)

This was an interesting social history, which included lots of interesting technology history too. I was struck by the explanation of how social norms and gender stereotypes resulted in the lead in computing that Britain had developed during the second world war being lost afterwards. Notions of ‘men’s work’ and ‘women’s work’ meant that the highly skilled women who had been vital during the war effort lost opportunities to progress after the war ended and subsequent generations found themselves categorised into administrative roles with a host of institutional barriers to developing their careers. The negative consequences of this are still all too clear today.

I was hoping to learn a bit more about how stereotypes of computers as a ‘boys’ toy’ from the early days of consumer computing might be influential today, but the book’s focus on business and government from the 1940s through to the 1980s meant that it was silent on that.

Cyber Wars, Charles Arthur (https://www.koganpage.com/product/cyber-wars-9780749482008#)

This book delves into a series of high profile cyber attacks and describes what happened and the repercussions. I enjoyed it and thought that for the most part the book would be a good read for a fairly non-technical audience, getting beyond the ‘it’s all too complicated and scary’ narrative that’s too common in the media coverage of cyber threats and explaining practical lessons that can be learned. This could prompt some useful questions for senior people to ask their ICT teams for assurance about (and also ask themselves, given how often the causes of cyber breaches are prioritising business growth over the time and investment need to get security fundamentals right).

While the book is not a highly technical tome, I thought it would also be a useful read for a more technical audience. The case studies show how fairly straightforward measures such as keeping systems up to date, using effective access control, and training support staff to be careful when they’re asked to reset passwords should be prioritised above some of the more cloak and dagger stuff that people can often become obsessed by.

(All is not lost though, I was encouraged by the section that describes how IKEA are investing in getting the security for their ‘smart’ lighting right, on the grounds that it makes good commercial sense.)

Travelers in the Third Reich: The Rise of Fascism Through the Eyes of Everyday People, Julia Boyd (https://www.amazon.co.uk/Travellers-Third-Reich-Fascism-Everyday-ebook/dp/B06Y63WXM7)

My holiday reading usually includes a dose of history and I find the first half of the twentieth century especially interesting. This book was a change from my usual choices as it focused on civilian life in Germany from 1918–1945 through observations made by travellers visiting the country. What struck me from reading it was that there appeared to be an alarming level of sympathy for many of the Nazi’s policies, which comes across as being the result of a combination of social norms at the time, the group of commentators whose writing was selected for the book (I wondered how representative the people chosen were), a failure to understand the real extent of what was happening, and the extensive use of propaganda.

Weapons of Math Destruction, Cathy O’Neil (https://weaponsofmathdestructionbook.com/)

This book looks at how algorithms and data are shaping our world, in particular the impact this has on locking in social disadvantage and other adverse effects. Recurring themes included the use of proxy measures to determine outcomes (eg where you live being used to set insurance premiums and credit scores being used as part of screening for job applications) and lack of accountability for many of these processes. I think that data ethics is going to become an increasingly important part of how we shape our world and thought that it was interesting to reflect on how the rights set out in the General Data Protection Regulation will contribute to this. I also wonder how we might best educate people so that they are able to exercise these rights effectively.

Turn The Ship Around! David Marquet (https://www.davidmarquet.com/books/)

This has been on my ‘to read’ list for quite a while. It’s based on the experience that the author had as the Captain of a US Navy submarine where he introduced an inclusive leadership approach to dramatically improve the ship’s performance (a big contrast to the traditional command and control approach). I found it an easy read and thought that it suggested some good ideas for ways to make the shift from heroic / command and control leadership to establishing a confident and effective leadership culture across a team.

The Price of Prosperity: Why Rich Nations Fail and How to Renew Them, Todd G. Buchholz (https://www.harpercollins.com/9780062405708/the-price-of-prosperity)

This book puts forward a thesis suggesting why prosperous nations eventually find themselves reaching a point of decline, looking back from ancient Greece through to the modern world. I’m always a bit suspicious when a piece of writing starts out by declaring that it has uncovered the previously unidentified and definitive answer to a question, and some of the conclusions were too neat for my liking. I also felt that the author was too confident that the Western world’s current economic model was the right one and that the challenges we face are primarily to do with other aspects of social integration and cohesion — I doubt that it’s as straightforward as that. But I learned some interesting stuff and overall I didn’t begrudge the time spent reading the book.

The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon, Brad Stone (https://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/29/books/the-everything-store-jeff-bezos-and-the-age-of-amazon.html)

I’m still half way through, but I’m finding this a very interesting read. It’s easy to assume that Amazon found the magic formula for success from the get go, so I’m finding it interesting to learn more about the company’s beginnings and the different approaches Amazon has had to try out as it has grown. As Matt Ballantine has noted, I’m not persuaded by Jeff Bezos’ approach to management and work / life balance, but then I’m not a multi-billionaire so maybe it’s me who’s getting it wrong…

So, now on to the bank holiday weekend and revving back into gear for work next week! (I’m actually looking forward to getting back up to speed — which I think suggests it’s been a good break.)