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Hugh Claffey (Co. Kildare Ireland)
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An Officer and a Spy
An Officer and a Spy
by Robert Harris
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.19

4.0 out of 5 stars Dramatic., 7 Sept. 2014
This review is from: An Officer and a Spy (Paperback)
The Dreyfus case played out about 120 years ago. Harris does an excellent job recreating it, and keeping us turning the six hundred pages as the story twists and turns. The narrator is a military man, Col. Picquart, who plays a small, ignoble part in arresting Dreyfus,as a German spy in the French military, but picks up the pieces after the conviction. His role in unmasking the real German spy, and as a consequence freeing Dreyfus is well told. If anything the book is too short, as the French military and political establishment fought tenaciously to deny that Dreyfus was innocent, even as they acknowledged the real spies guilt. There were enquiries and retrials, and many setbacks, Dreyfus was forced to plead for clemency (which implied guilt).

Harris gives an excellent view of the levels of anti-Semitism in French society of the times. His books always seem to incorporate an important building as almost another character – the headquarters of the French Secret Service fulfils that role in this book.

I had two issues with the book: As a work of fiction it had too many characters – there were French commanding generals, ministers of War, and through the years they retired, were replaced, and were called out of retirement. It was necessary for authenticity to name them, but it was an effort to keep track and it was hard to distinguish between them. I’m sure Harris kept the characters to a minimum.

A more serious quibble is about the affair described between Picquart and Pauline, a married woman. Both characters were real people, Pauline was eventually divorced, but no evidence of the affair exists. Their affair is a necessary device to humanize the plot, increase its drama, but as these were real people, is it fair to the memory of these characters? Its possible that Pauline’s grandchildren are alive today, is Harris’s description what history will remember their grandmother? It may seem a small point, but I think History is about being fair to characters – fair in the sense of understanding their anti-Semitism as a product of their society, as well as being fair to their memory, by not implying behaviour of which there is no record. I should point out this point about the affair is made by historians on a website ( www.affairdreyfus.com ) to which Harris refers the reader at the end of the book.


The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers
The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers
by Ben Horowitz
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £12.91

5.0 out of 5 stars Authentic feel for how to be a real-world CEO. A must read, 7 Sept. 2014
There are almost as many Management books as there are Diet books, and they divide between ‘My story: How I saved the World” and ‘the Fifteen Point Plan to Market Domination”. Both make company leadership seem straightforward, if only you have the right leader or the right consultant/plan. Ben Horowitz’s books draws on an appalling time he had as CEO of Loudcloud and Opsware starting in the dot com crash and ending in a ($1.7 billion) trade sale to HP. There are lots of anecdotes, not all of the ego-enhancing for Horowitz ( one VC asks Horowitz, as CEO, when the company intends to get a ‘real CEO’), but they are used to set up a spine of theory for the book.

There’s a view of the loneliness of CO decision-making, having called in favours in time, effort and money from friends, family, employees , the CEO has to take decisions based on the cold logic of return to investors, customer perceptions of the product relative to the competition. I think he describes very well the emotional pressure not to take harsh decisions, to deny the ultimate problem, which befalls many chief executives and many companies. In a start up situation, this can mean the company goes to the wall, and everyone loses. Sometimes the CEO’s choices are about how to minimize the bad outcomes and how to stay in the game, not matter how damaging to various participants.

I loved his anecdote about the characteristic of a CEO – if you are the kind of person who, when a friend tells you a joke, you hear the joke out, tell your friend the three things that need to be improved with it, and offer to hear the joke again within a defined timeframe, at which point you are prepared to be amused – then you are a natural CEO. His point being that developing skills to be a CEO are not natural for most people, but are necessary.

He is kind (too kind?) about the differences between being an executive in a large multinational company (being reactive, watching your back, careful-formal communication, risk-strategies for development) and a small company (doing what it takes within the law).

There’s a great story about getting their Opsware product sold into EDS, about finding the people within EDS who could delay the potential sale (and sink Opsware) and finding out how to give them what they wanted. Its so unbelievable , it can only be true. Its worth the price of the book alone. Its used to illustrate a couple of points about how to make a sale, and how to make a make a transformative deal. You really have to read it.

I bought into the book’s advice in full. However as I read on, one key thing not mentioned was the deep pool of help/advice that Horowitz had. He was about to get advice (and sometimes) investment from Herb Allen, Michael Ovitz and Bill Campbell among others. Its not clear how these heavy-hitters came onto Horowitz’s radar (perhaps via Netscape?), but they are surely crucial in terms of advice and connections. I guess its hard to right a business book that says ‘First start with major players on your board….”. As you read through the book, it becomes clear on a sales levels that making major sales requires a deep-pool of connections to give you knowledge about your customers organizations, their own internal influence networks and how you know that good feedback will translate to committed dollars. I liked Horowitzs summary that some of your employees are making product and some are making sales. I have worked in places where one or other skill set was over-emphasized.

A couple of niggles: Pronouns: lots of the pro-nouns are female, e.g. Your operations executive will need space to put her team together ….” . That seems fine, a bit ‘right-on’, but, I’m pretty sure, that when Horowitz name checked non-family people in the book, as having helped in key-ways, all were male. It emphasized for me the male- orientated nature of the tech. industry. There are some female names mentioned in the acknowledgements

Marc Andreessen: Horowitz mentions that Andreessen hired him into Netscape, was chairman of Loudcloud, is a founding partner is their VC company. He acknowledges Andreessen’s technical foresight, his analytical abilities and that they have a very fruitful working relationship. However in the body of the text, I could not see where Andreessen had contributed at all. I counted one mention, when Loudcloud was encountering product troubles, that Andreessen had started working with another startup. Nothing else. It neither contributes to nor detracts from the story, but I was puzzled by this


A Delicate Truth
A Delicate Truth
by John le Carré
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.99

20 of 24 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Unambiguous. A pity., 30 July 2014
This review is from: A Delicate Truth (Paperback)
The story telling is an intriguing as ever. He begins with the main event, and the book is the slow unfurling of the context of the event and the main character's moral and logistical stuggles to do the right thing. As usual with le Carre we have a foreboding that the hero will not win through.

The usual strengths and weaknesses apply , the dialogue is faultless, credible, you can almost hear the words as you read them - though there is a Welsh character whose dialogue is almost a parody of Welshness. The crafting of the story telling is as exquisite as ever. The shortcomings of female characterisation is there as ever, Probyn's wife might as well wear a sign saying `Conscience', his daughter is doughty, loyal and true.

The problems with le Carre's later work are visible - it now lacks the ambiguity that was characteristic of his classics - Karla returned to a potential show-trial in Moscow rather than defect to Smiley, Smiley used Karla's love of family to bring about his ultimate defeat; the ambiguity of good people doing cruel things in defence of an ideology of toleration. Le Carre's minor characters were always memorable also -Ricky Tarr springs to mind. In this book all the bad guys are unredeemable - greedy, vain, duplicitous, all might as well wear black hats. Even the good guys are superficial - Toby Bell, the hero, is conflicted, but not deep. Toby's mentor - Giles Oakley - seemed to be a Smiley-type, but le Carre drives him into a cul-de-sac. Oakley warns Bell not to act on the information he has, so as not to loose his job, he urges him to wait until he has a pension. Probyn is afraid to act on the infomation he has, because he might loose his pension. In fact the only character developed in the book is Kit Probyn, the aged Civil-servant `low-flier'. I think le Carre might see him as a metaphor for the British public - well-meaning, easily led, decent. As I read the book, I kept seeing John Cleese as Probyn, not in manic comedy mode, but in his pent-up despair role.
Comment Comments (4) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Apr 30, 2015 8:13 PM BST


The Party: The Secret World of China's Communist Rulers
The Party: The Secret World of China's Communist Rulers
by Richard McGregor
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.98

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A must read., 30 July 2014
The leit-motif of this book is the ‘red-phone’ on the desks of senior executives in Chinese companies. The idea is that the communist party maintains control of major ‘private’ coporations. He shows that the three main telecommunications companies, in theory in competition, swopped chief executives at the behest of the party. McGregor gives us a tour of various parts of Chinese society – industry, the army, the civil service, among others. He notes the significant part that corruption plays in the party, and the fact that the party;s insistence that there is no other power structure can exist in China, means that the corruption, which is associated with power, cannot be effectively eliminated. In fact, the waves of investigations of corruption have been used by powerful factions within the party to root out their rivals.

My reaction to the book was that a lot of what Is being described is Economic Nationalism – take an example of France – where the government directs a lot of what industrial leaders do, and industrial leaders cycle in and out of government departments. As I finished the book, it seemed to me that the lack of effective, independent power structures within the society and the regularity and possibility of changing the party in government is what distinguishes Chinese society from Western ones. A fairly obvious point, but reinforced, in detail, by this excellent book.


Where Good Ideas Come From: The Seven Patterns of Innovation
Where Good Ideas Come From: The Seven Patterns of Innovation
by Steven Johnson
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.98

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Good. Anecdotal rather than analytical, 30 July 2014
I had an expectation that this book might have laid out options for an innovation strategy at the level of a firm or as a society. It didn’t give me that, but it was useful in giving an outline of various methods by which key concepts (e.g. evolution) are recognised and developed. Three key takeways – there really isn’t a ‘light-bulb’ moment, keys ideas bubble around in the mind of the inventor/discover for months/years and only in retrospect does the author seem to recognize an epiphany; new products can only be invented by using the technology of the times, e.g. Babbage’s Analytical engine had to wait for the electronic valve – there’s a great illustration of this from the Apollo 13 hack, the engineers on the ground were put in a room with only stuff that was available in the lunar module and told to devise a filter; the sheer power of trial and error – there’s a lovely story of the inventor of the Triode, the inventor saw the phenomenon, but never understood its cause, but pursued the product nonetheless.

Overall ok.


The Death of Mao: The Tangshan Earthquake and the Birth of the New China
The Death of Mao: The Tangshan Earthquake and the Birth of the New China
by James Palmer
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars I feel I ought to like this book, but don’t., 30 July 2014
First the thing I liked best – the description of the death of Mao and the struggle to replace him from 1976-1978. The world could have been a significantly different place if a different power grouping had been able to seize the Chinese Politburo. The role of mass protest, and especially the fact that in 1976 Deng was popular with protestors in Tien am Mien Square was particularly interesting – especially in light of what he did in 1989.

However, the main conceit of the book is that when emperors die, disasters stalk the land. The 1976 Tangshan earthquake was, indeed a disaster, and one which was covered up by Chinese Authorities, however I didn’t see any connection with the death of Mao, so overall I didn’t see the relevance of including it in this book. Either story would have been interesting, but both, together, confused me.

Also the author intrudes too much into the story – telling us how difficult it is for him to assess the age of any rural Chinese over forty – due to the effects of malnutrition during the Cultural Revolution. He also mentions his Chinese grandparents – without explaining how he acquired them. To be honest, I don’t want to know, but this was an irritant.

Nonetheless a clear description of events I knew little about.


Duty
Duty
by Robert Gates
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £25.00

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars An angry book. He’s at war with everybody, including, I suspect, himself., 9 July 2014
This review is from: Duty (Hardcover)
“I cannot afford the luxury of sentiment, mine must be cold logic. Sentiment is for others” Bob Gates includes this quote on the last page of ‘Duty’. Does it sound like a private comment from Obama? Bush 41? Its actually a quote from George Marshall, who every US Sec of State and Defence rightfully holds in awe ( well, when I say every, I haven’t read Rumsfeld’s memoir yet, but I suspect even Rumsfeld must).

Gates was asked by George W (referred to as Bush 43) in 2006 to pick up the pieces following Rumsfeld’s resignation. The pieces being two wars, only going disastrously, one gradually worsening. He had been head of the CIA during Bush 41’s time, and a senior official in both NSC and CIA in the Regan/Bush cabinets. His reason to take on Secretary of Defence in 2006 was ‘if he soldiers are doing their duty, so must I”. HE finds that the Joint Chiefs of Staff have no appetite for the wars, and he gets really angry trying to focus the Pentagon on ‘winning the wars we are in’. This translates in each area of the defence forces being reluctant to divert funds from long-term programs to more immediate priorities eg. The accelerated procurement of mine-protected transport vehicles. Some part of the joint chiefs attitude may have been formed by Rumsfeld’s ‘ you go to war with the army that you’ve got”, and their curiously disengaged attitudes might have been influenced by his (described in Bradley Grahams’ By His Own Rules’)

Gates gives the Bush 43 administration a pass on internal bickering, though he does say that by the time Gates arrived that neither 43 or Cheney were up for re-election, and that most of the policy decisions had been set. However his description of 43’s thinking on the Iraq surge, shows 43 in a good light, Cheney comes across less devious, less argumentative than in other books’; though no less conservative and aggressive (in policy terms). I liked Gates’ take on the Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007 – basically how did the CIA miss it (a huge issue, curiously ignored by main media); opposed to using US military to destroy it without first using diplomacy; and opposed to allowing Israel carte-blanch to destroy it. In the end Gates feels that 43 gave Israel a tacit green light, by not opposing their plans strongly enough.

Gates was asked to stay by Obama, and while never overtly disloyal to Obama, he is very critical of the infighting and micromanagement in the White House. Leaks about, Gates criticises named NSC staffers as leaking to Bob Woodward (in Obamas Wars) and fostering deep distrust between the Pentagon and the White House. This isn’t helped by the many speeches which the joint chiefs and army commanders give, some of which express opinions at odds with policy. Obama is portrayed as very deliberative, not invested in the Iraq or Afghan policies, and very concerned about US political reactions. Gates does praise his decision on Osama bin Laden; Gates likes Hilary and disagrees with everything Joe Biden says (though curiously he acknowledges Joe’s warmth).

Congress gets the worst of Gates’ anger however, he is openly derisive of their knowledge their professionalism, their attention span, their motivations. He describes how one Congressman holds up funds for the new mine-proof vehicle because of the proposal to divert funds from Humvee (the jeep the new vehicle was to replace). He is scathing in comparing the US congress’s inability to pass budgets with its complaints about the dysfunctional Iraqi and Afghan legislatures.

In the end, with all these frustrations, he tells Obama that he ‘has run out of juice’ and hands over to Leon Panetta, a savvy politico, influential in congress and with the President. He feels that his concern for the troops, his responsibility for putting them in harm’s way, weighs increasingly heavily on him and disrupts his ability to do his job with objectivity and discipline. I think there’s a fair measure of self-awareness here. I think the quote from Marshall quoted at the top of this review is instructive, Marshall is a latter-day saint, instrumental in toppling Fascism and rescuing Western Europe from Communism, and, by implication, allowing time for Western Democratic Capitalism to outpace Communism. But his methods were effective i.e. ruthless when necessary. In a very brutal sense US casualties in both wars were in the low thousands – low enough that Gates could write personally to the families of the fallen – infinitesimal in comparison with other wars the US has fought. If you thought the purpose of the wars was sufficiently achievable and worthy, it would be possible to see the sacrifice as necessary. I strikes me that Gates came to view the sacrifice as unnecessary. Not just that the politicians were fickle - Marshall suffered direct political attack (‘Who lost China?’) and even Eisenhower did not stand up for him – not just the Defence administration was inefficient and wasteful, but I think the base problem for Gates is that neither he, nor the Joint Chiefs believed in the Mission. And there’s not much discussion of this in the book – if the mission was to deny terrorists a base of operations, their potential bases had spread to Yemen and North Africa; If it was to install democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan, it would take decades and billions of dollars. I think Gates was tormented by the job he inherited – make some sense of the wars the US was engaged in, save face and get out. In the end, I think, this mission proved so contradictory – if we were only there to find an exit, how did you face the families of the fallen soldiers who died while the country waited to get out?

I was not surprised that the pentagon nearly defeated him, I didn’t think his experience in running organisations (CIA, Texas A&M) was sufficient executive experience to run a huge organisation. I was also surprised with the almost complete lack of analysis of the US defence posture in the book – almost nothing on China, just how difficult the PLA are to deal with, including how they surprise their own politicians. What it the US mission in the world ? What is its Defence posture? Will it limit itself to keeping sea-lanes open, and try to dominate Space and Cyber ? These are huge tasks in themselves, for a guy steeped in geo-political analysis I was surprise this was absent from his description of his work at the Pentagon.


Watching the Door: A Memoir 1971-78
Watching the Door: A Memoir 1971-78
Price: £5.63

4.0 out of 5 stars You need to be opinionated to be an opinion columnist, I guess., 7 July 2014
Kevin Myers is an opinion columnist in an Irish national daily newspaper. When interviewed he declaims rather than converses, and overall just gets raises my hackles to the point where if I find myself agreeing with him, I think what’s wrong with this picture.
This book is about his early days in journalism, in Northern Ireland. Myers tells us he was an outside, and indeed he took a courageous (and lonely) stand in resigning from the Irish state broadcaster when a fellow broadcaster came under pressure to identify a interviewee as an member of the IRA. It should be said that Myers, then and now, despises the IRA, so his stance was for press freedom rather than pro-IRA sympathies. He then got work as a freelancer, he well-describes an aimless, alcohol-fuelled lifestyle, which seemed to mirror the lifestyle of various paramilitaries and hangers-on at the time. His story of his times describes the violence from the perpetrators and victims points of view, all rather haphazard and pointless. He is working for various news agencies, some of whom pay, some don’t. He works through various girlfriends, some married, some weird. It’s a strangely believable story about the depraved aimlessness of the times. it reminded me of Kaput, by Curzio Malaparte, an observer’s view of the Second World War on the Eastern Front, all the gore, none of the strategy.

Throughout Myers tells us that he felt completely alienated from his fellow journalists – some of whom made names for themselves in later years – Paxman, John Snow, Olivia O’Leary, Sean O’Rourke. He shares that his brusque manner (at least in the early years) was a cover for shyness, though it did strike me that the accounts of his various romantic interludes came across as both incredible and boasting.

Overall I liked this book, it was (mainly) credible and enlightening. Now what’s wrong with this picture?


The Priest Hunters: The True Story of Ireland's Bounty Hunters
The Priest Hunters: The True Story of Ireland's Bounty Hunters
by Colin Murphy
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.99

2.0 out of 5 stars Interesting Premise, but lacks consistent characters., 7 July 2014
Even though we give out about 800 years of occupation, the plantations, Cromwell and so on, the Penal Laws against Catholics were really only given consistent legal basis from 1697 onwards. From then on, rewards were given for capturing priests, and some chaps took up the occupation of Priest Hunting. This book describes them and the activities of some priests in avoiding them. There are many fascinating vignettes about people being called to mass locations with the minimum of notice, of priests hiding in caves, of masses being said by masked priests to ensure members of the congregation wouldn’t cash-in later. There are also some stories about the motivations and antics of the priest hunters, not, as you might expect, the most wholesome of individuals.

While I appreciated the research and the accuracy of the account, it was a bit unsatisfying. Each chapter covered various characters, and they were disconnected both within the chapter and from each other chapter.
I think these facts might be better conveyed in a historical novel, where a narrative could be developed around particular characters, and footnotes could distinguish fact from fiction.


Angela Merkel the Authorized Biogra
Angela Merkel the Authorized Biogra
by Kornelius Stefan
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.98

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Pedestrian account, 7 July 2014
When this book was released in English, it was much heralded in the British media as giving particular insight into Europe’s most powerful politician. On the cover there are recommendations from German reviews ‘most interesting’ Die Zeit, ‘Thrillingly written’ Neue Zurcher Zeitung; ‘meticulous’ Die Welt. I agree with the last, but not the first two, maybe something got lost in translation
As Germany is the largest economy in Europe, its leaders actions and opinions are very important. It is also a fact that Germany takes almost no part in difficult international diplomacy – it abstained on Libya, its position on Ukraine seemed equivocal. There is also the Oz suspicion about the German economy, powerful as it is, it may be less financially powerful than we think. The combined debts of Italy and Spain might be too great to be offset by German backing (even if it was forthcoming).
So all in all, a book that explained what Angela Merkel’s views on economics, Gemanys’ financial and political place in the world, would be very interesting.

With this book I didn’t get more than you might know or guess already. She’s no big fan of Putin, but doesn’t want to rock the boat with Russia. She will do only what is required to save the Euro, no grand sweeping gestures, each country must rescue itself, and only when the whole system is threatened will she consider some compromise. Each diplomatic action must be considered by itself, not part of a grand strategy – the vote to abstain on the Libyan action is now considered an embarrassment. So, piecemeal stuff. On a personal level, same deal, she if reserved, cautious, restrained. She can speak Russian, loves the US west coast, is very supportive of Israel (one thing I didn’t know) and could retire mid-way through her current term, if she feels the Euro is stable.


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