Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Book Reviews: Explorers Eye, The Map Book & Remarkable Maps

As Michael Palin laments in the introduction to The Explorer's Eye : First-Hand Accounts of Adventure and Exploration, all the good unexplored places are gone.

Of course, there's space and there are the deepest recesses of the ocean. But those aren't places you're likely to go with just a compass and a flask of whisky.

And yet there's still something in mankind - particularly the men of mankind - that wants to go boldly where no one has gone before. Hence the reason I watch three episodes in a row of Star Trek in my pyjamas and seriously imagine I could command a starship, while the dishes remain undone.

But I digress.

What's interesting about all the great explorers - Cook, Shackleton, Scott, Livingstone, Cousteau - is what they discovered about themselves. About humanity.

And that's what The Explorer's Eye is really about - the journeys of exploration, whether for the North-West Passage or the moon, hold up a mirror to the human imagination, saying, like Joey Tribbiani, "How you doin'?"

Well, maybe not like Joey Tribbiani, but the mirror does ask us questions. How much can we take? Where are we headed? Why do we want to explore?

The Explorer's Eye gives you first hand accounts, including atrocious spelling and grammar, of some of the high and low points of explorers through the ages. With nice big photos it's just asking to be got for a Christmas present.

And then there are the two gigantic books that came out recently, The Map Book and Remarkable Maps: 100 Examples of How Cartography Defined, Changed and Stole the World.

What can I say? They're both huge, with fantastic pictures, and show some of the milestones on the way to mapping the world. These are about exploration, too, but instead of being at the front line, these maps, and the stories behind them, again show what's happening in the minds of the people, and nations, creating the maps.

On the back of Remarkable Maps is written: "Some of the maps assessed here - some beautiful, some technically brilliant - are lies. Interpretation not only of the cartograhic information given, but also of the mapmaker's motives and the political background, makes the story of cartography a model of all human endeavour and aspiration."

Indeed. So in this post-discovery world, let us continue to discover ourselves, and know our humanity both in its weakness and greatness. That is truly the final frontier.

Book Review: Medici Money

It's not often you get to see a family business, close-up, over four generations. Thanks to the scrupulous accounting practices of 15th-century Florentines and the sparkling storytelling of Tim Parks, you can.

Medici Money zooms in on the famous - or infamous - Medici banking dynasty beginning with the prudent Giovanni di' Benci de Medici in the late 1300s to 'Il Magnifico', Lorenzo de Medici, who sent the company bankrupt, but in such style.

You'll often hear about the Medicis in connection with art, and while art plays an important role in this book, this is mostly about the intersection of commerce, religion and politics that took place in just under a hundred years.

Tim Parks, the author, is better-known as a novelist, not a historian, and his flowing prose is welcome relief to a reader used to wading through more academic accounts lately. What's best is that he realises there are a lot of people and places to keep track of here, and lays it all out carefully at the beginning. But in case you still get lost, he doesn't fail to remind you who's who throughout the book. Parks is extraordinarily considerate to his readers.

Parks' intimate knowledge of Italian history and geography also comes out of every pore of this book (if books had pores). This is one of those books that, while it covers roughly a century very quickly, makes you feel like you've been there and met the people.

Medici Money is not just an idle look back either. Parks uses modern situations and parallels to help the reader who hasn't visited 15th century Florence understand why seemingly trivial things like lending at interest were so important.

If you're interested in history, politics, business, art or just people, this book is wide-ranging enough to interest all of you.

The gulf between "not failing" and succeeding

I'm facing a period of change in my life right now where I have to make some sort of change, no matter what I do.

It's easy to focus on not failing. After all, my wife works in insurance, which is all about risk reduction. But if that's all life is about, that's not much of a life.

But in a recent time of reflection, I realised that "not failing" was becoming top of mind. As I heard myself say "I don't want to fail", I realised just how wrong that was - "success" should be uppermost in my mind.

When you start thinking success, it brings up a whole lot of questions, like:
  • What is success?
  • How do I know if what I want is really what's best for me?
  • Can I do it?
The answers to these questions are usually very unsettling, and are different for everyone.

What is success? It could be as deep and profound as "fulfilling the eternal plan of God (or the Universe) for my life" ... or it might be as simple as "making other people feel good".

Whatever it is, it needs to be completely true for you, bigger than you, and open to change.

As for the second question, "how do I know that what I want is really what's best?" - you don't. And you won't, until you start to move.

The third question, "can I do it?" ... we can only answer that question with our actions, not our words.

City salutes its modest hero - 30 Nov 2005 - National News

City salutes its modest hero - 30 Nov 2005 - National News

People like this always say anyone would do what they do, so they're not a hero. But would anyone do it?

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Body, Money, People

If I ran a school for adults (or even for teenagers), I'd make sure they covered three areas I can't remember being emphasised to me at school:
  • Your body. How it works, how to look after it, how to make it live longer.
  • Your money. How money works, how to manage your own money.
  • Other people. How to understand other people, and live in harmony with them.
These are the three key areas where we see so much suffering in the world.

In New Zealand, and in much of the western world, bad diet is causing obesity and a zillion other problems with people's bodies. We simply don't know how to eat right, because we have too much choice. Too much temptation.

Poverty is killing so much of the world, but in the Western world it's hidden by the welfare system, and by banks and finance companies offering more and more interest-laden debt to consumers who really can't afford it. Many people don't really know the difference between an asset and a liability, and their expensive cars and cellphones (and iPods?) propel them further into debt.

Lack of understanding and connecting with others is killing people around the world. It's easy in an urban or even a suburban environment to be a recluse, to be anonymous. That's everyone's choice, but is there a healthier way? And in workplaces, companies focus on productivity and profit, at the expense of making the workplace somewhere people want to come to. It's in a skill shortage like NZ is experiencing now that companies start to find that out. And for many, it may be too late!

So ... what am I going to do about it? I've already started - reading books on these three areas, and trying to put them into practice.

The people side of things I've always looked at, and on this blog you'll find many books that help you understand others. But I've neglected the whole area of physical health and financial acument. Well, watch this space for some book reviews that will help you - or at least me! - to get these areas in order.

Magazine - Peter Drucker: 1909–2005 - FORTUNE - Page

Magazine - Peter Drucker: 1909–2005 - FORTUNE - Page

More very interesting words from Peter Drucker:

“The three greatest leaders of the 20th century were Hitler, Stalin, and Mao. If that’s leadership, I want no part of it.”


In context, he's talking about how the received wisdom these days is to put down mere "management" and exalt "leadership". Very interesting indeed!

And if you click on that link, there are several very interesting and very touching tributes to Peter Drucker. As I mentioned when David Lange died earlier this year, the best time to get a summation of someone's contribution to the world is when they die. Sad, but true.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Review: The End of Oil by Paul Roberts

If you haven't consumed any media in the last year or so, you may not have heard of Peak Oil.

It's the name of a) a theory that says Earth's oil reserves are running out very very soon; and b) a book explaining this theory and it's implications to Western Civilisation (ie: there won't be any if there's no oil).

While Peak Oil's website gives the impression that the book is kind of scary-with-a-straight-face, The End of Oil comes across a lot more balanced.

It begins with an analysis of energy crises our ancestors (I'm generalising here; he's talking about our European ancestors who developed the industrial society we now live in) went through, and how they solved those energy crises without killing each other.

Then, Roberts looks at the state of affairs today - giving as much air time as he can to both sides of the argument; the ones who say we're running out soon while demand continues to grow exponentially, and the ones who say there are still hidden, untapped reserves in the world that will carry us through until we discover alternative sources of fuel.

It's perhaps Roberts' fair mindedness that makes this book seem a bit repetitive: we get the general arguments on either side, yet we're still treated to them as espoused by various people all over the world.

Finally the book breaks through into possibilities for the future. Admittedly, I haven't read that part yet - the slow-moving first part of the book put me off. But the sneak peeks I have seen of the later chapters give me hope - not just for the future of the world, but that this book will eventually make interesting reading!

If you want detail - lots of detail - about the current state (as at 2004/2005) of the energy industry, its big players and detractors, you'll really enjoy The End of Oil. In that respect, it's good journalism.

If you simply want a clear picture of what's going on now, and what could happen in the future, perhaps you should consider skim-reading this book.

Either way, it's fair to say this is a subject you should be interested in. We all use oil, whether we like it or not.

Book Review: iPod, therefore I am

I'm kind of ashamed to admit it... I don't have an iPod. Yet.

Trouble is, with all kinds of technology, you can only win by waiting. It'll only get better, or the price will come down. But still there's this unavoidable feeling of missing out...

The feeling doesn't get any better when I read iPod, Therefore I Am by Dylan Jones. But while the book says a lot about the little white box, it says even more about the iPod's effect on society, and in that respect it's a fascinating slice of life - what the world was like in 2005.

Sounds like a kind of frivolous subject, but this book actually knocked me off track from the other "current affairs" book I was reading, The End of Oil. (Maybe that makes me frivolous, I don't know?)

Jones uses his very personal experiences with music to paint a picture of music's impact in the 20th century. He's vulnerable enough to let us see his slightly obsessive behaviour when it comes to music. Either he's got very little to lose, or he knows many of his readers will feel the same way he does about their music collections.

This book will open your eyes to a huge change in the way we consume media in the 21st century. It's not just iPods, but the iPod has led the charge in a user-controlled media world. Now we can dissect the magic moments of our lives, examine and reflect on why they inspired us so much.

This is the era of the collector. Sure there were collectors before, but more than ever collectors have a sense of ownership. Even if the record companies disagree.

I can relate, even though I don't have an iPod. Over the past few months I bought several Star Trek movies that had appealed to me as a kid. Seen as glimpses on TV, these films left me with a feeling of sheer wonder. Just a feeling.

Now, 20 years later, I can do a frame-by-frame advance on the magical moments, identify the specific sections of music score that inspired me, and uncover all the special effects secrets with text commentary. If I can't find anything out on the DVD, there's always the internet.

Okay, so I'm talking about DVD and internet, not iPod, but if the current trend is anything to go by, such distinctions won't mean much in ten years.

Frivolous? I think not. You'll laugh as you read iPod, Therefore I Am, but you'll also reflect on the implications of a future that is already here.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Farewell, Peter Drucker

I was surprised how surprised I was to read that Peter Drucker passed away last week. After all, he'd had a better than average innings at 95 years old.

But somehow I feel - and I'm sure this is true of many in the business community - that someone very important has passed away. Not someone who used to be important, but someone who was still actively contributing to management theory.

I didn't know much about Drucker until I read his excellent kinda-biographical book Adventures of a Bystander. I recommend it - this guy lived through some of the 20th century's most amazing moments (good and bad) and was able to bring a lot of perspective to how to work

Farewell, Peter Drucker. I never met you, but thanks to your writing I felt like I knew you.

Friday, November 11, 2005


Sorry all. I was trying to comment on another blog and Blogger seemed to post it here instead.

Apologies for the confusion!

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Weasel Words


Check out the top list of weasel wordy statements. Personally I think Network PR's isn't that weasely, and certainly doesn't deserve top billing, but maybe that's because I kind of work in PR.

What should top the list, in my humble opinion, is:

'The market access pillar in agriculture must go beyond this proposal ... We need to keep negotiating to push the ambition levels out ... At the end of the day we need to see a closing of the gap of the differential of the way industrial goods are treated to the way agricultural goods are treated.'
Mark Vaile, Australia's Trade Minister, refusing to give up on stalled PTO talks, ABC News (thanks to Marion Diamond)

Wow. If you can translate that in the forum (on the weaselwords site) you could win a diary or something. Goody.

Two great leaders

Long time, no post. Sorry about that - I've been enjoying a largely internet-free couple of weeks with family (both mine and Marie's) in Australia.

This photo is of Marie's dad's cousin Setu and his wife, Fa'asinoala. They're Presbyterian ministers in Newcastle, Australia, and two of the most remarkably humble people I've ever met.

During the late 1980s, Marie, her sister and her mother lived in Newcastle for five years. Although it's a relatively short period of time in the big scheme of things, those five years were foundational to Marie. And a lot of it was due to these two people.

Setu and Fa'asinoala are not only leaders in their church, they're leaders in the Samoan community in Newcastle, a relatively small town in a huge country - and back then a very white one. They helped their community retain a strong sense of identity while still participating in, and contributing to, the wider world.

Being a religious leader in Samoan culture can be a sweet deal - people give you lots of money and food, generally.

But this couple knows what their job is really about - the people. And people are their main priority; on the day we left Newcastle, Setu said, tears in his eyes, that he never wants anyone in his care, young or old, to say that he never did anything for them.

The Christian tradition is full of words about humility, and it's easy to just echo the words and not live the reality. But Setu and Fa'asinoala display the genuine humility that's written about in secular classics such as Jim Collins' Good to Great - knowing that their true work is reflected in the people they're responsible for.