Category Archives: What I’m Reading Now

What book(s) I’m reading now and what I think about the subject, the writing, the book design and the author. Most of these are books by the bedside: books I read in the final hour or so before sleep each night. There is usually a stack of 10-20 books on the go at any one time.

Mao: The Unknown Dictator

Mao, the Unknown StoryAlthough I have read many biographies of the European dictators, and many histories of Europe and the Americas in the first half of the 20th century, I hadn’t read much about modern China until recently. Mao: The Unknown Story (by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday) was the first full-length biography I’ve read about Mao Tse Tung (Mao Zedong) and it is a remarkable work about a time and place in history that remains veiled to most of us even today.

Mao’s rise to power and his leadership that won the Communist Party its iron-fisted rule in China has often been portrayed as one of courage, sacrifice, determination and brilliance. Western journalists like Edgar Snow helped make Mao a sympathetic, even heroic character in Western eyes. But it was a sham. Snow was fooled into creating an image by being fed carefully doctored material. Mao’s image in the west was whitewashed in an effective propaganda campaign (one is reminded of the story of the Potemkin villages…).

According to Chang and Halliday, Mao’s life and political career has more in common with that of Josef Stalin than any other political leaders. He was, they write, a monster, responsible for the deaths of at least 70 million Chinese,more than any other international leader (I have read claims for higher figures about Stalin, however), mostly during the catastrophic “Great Leap Forward.”

I have to admit I struggled a bit trying to keep track of a host of characters with whom I had no familiarity, especially those who appear at the start of Mao’s career and don’t last its length. Of the roster of Mao’s friends and foes who appear later, I only really knew from my previous reading about Chou En Lai,  Liu Shaoqi and Lin Biao; and not really all that much about them.

I knew a little more about Jiang Qing, of course, because Madame Mao got Western media coverage when the Gang of Four fell from grace after Mao’s death. Most of my previous reading on China has been about its classical philosophers and poets. I knew more about Li Po, Tu Fu and Lao Tzi than about Mao and his minions. But I am trying to educate myself in China’s modern history.

Reading about Mao’s “Cultural Revolution” in this book, I thought about several Western novels: Orwell’s 1984, Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and Golding’s Lord of the Flies, all of which have some resonance. I also thought about Jan Wong’s excellent biography, Red China Blues, in which she found her youthful idealism for Mao’s China dissolved in the hypocrisy she discovered when she went to live there.

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CRAP Design

The Non-Designer's Design BookCRAP: Contrast, Repetition, Alignment, Proximity. An unfortunate acronym from the four basic principles of graphic design first expounded in Robin Williams’ delightful little book, The Non-Designer’s Design Book. It’s now in its fourth edition, adding 24 pages since the last edition, almost 50 since the 2nd and more than 100 since the first).

Of all my books on graphic design, this has been my favourite for several years, ever since I bought the first edition in the late 1990s. It condenses so much information, so many ideas, so many nuances into clear, understandable principles.

Plus, it’s well-illustrated, with many visual examples of good and bad design.

Every chapter and many sections offer some quiz, test, or challenge for readers to work on. None of which are terribly difficult and some of which are subjective, so there’s no right or wrong answer. But it’s a good exercise because sometimes the answers reveal things we missed in our initial exploration.

Since Williams came up with the CRAP list, it has been expanded and enhanced by others online. The principles have been included in courses, infographics and videos, too. They apply not only to printed publications, but digital ones as well, as this site shows.  You can find many more online, and I recommend you do so. But go back to the original to see how and where it started.

Other principles are often expounded on by subsequent authors: whitespace, balance, flow, scale, focal point, hierarchy, unity, movement, variety, emphasis, gradation, proportion and grouping for example – but you can tackle these once you’re understood the essence of CRAP.

I can recommend this book to everyone who does any sort of design, from PowerPoint slides to rack cards to brochures and even town newsletters. If you aren’t a graphic designer – and I am not – then it will give you the basics to help understand what design is all about. If you are, it’s a good reminder of the core principles.

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The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproduction

I have been reading the essays of the late critic, Walter Benjamin, most famous for his 1936 piece, The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproduction (an earlier translation of this essay is available here). Wikipedia notes of this essay that it has been,

…influential across the humanities, especially in the fields of cultural studies, media theory, architectural theory[1] and art history. Written at a time when Adolf Hitler was already Chancellor of Germany, it was produced, Benjamin wrote, in the effort to describe a theory of art that would be “useful for the formulation of revolutionary demands in the politics of art.” He argued that, in the absence of any traditional, ritualistic value, art in the age of mechanical reproduction would inherently be based on the practice of politics.

While Benjamin writes of the authenticity of a work of art and how a reproduction lacks this (and how this affects the experience of the viewer), it came to me that some forms of art – novels in particular, but also the book in which his essays are reproduced – are meant for mass reproduction. Without the technology of mass reproduction, printed material was limited in its influence and reach. This in turn limited literacy itself.

Benjamin also mentions the lithograph as a technology that reproduced art, both of which are related to the printing revolution. He doesn’t mention its contemporary technology, steel engraving, which was developed at the same time. Lithography is a chemical process, while engraving is mechanical.

But what I think he ignores is that neither was intended to reproduce a piece of art, but rather to create a unique piece that could be reproduced with integrity (for example, illustrations in a book, but engraving was also used extensively for printing money). The artists who perfected these forms meant for their work to be copied and printed. Only when the plate or stone wore out from use, and finer details become smudged or lost, would the piece begin to lose its authenticity.

Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be. This unique existence of the work of art determined the history to which it was subject throughout the time of its existence. This includes the changes which it may have suffered in physical condition over the years as well as the various changes in its ownership. The traces of the first can be revealed only by chemical or physical analyses which it is impossible to perform on a reproduction; changes of ownership are subject to a tradition which must be traced from the situation of the original.

Benjamin was not merely commenting on art, but on politics and society. He opens with a somewhat mixed Marxist analysis, rambling a bit before making the point that modern reproduction takes art from its original use as religious and ritual items to the realm of the political. Mechanical reproduction removes art from its role, and in doing so changes the viewer’s aesthetic appreciation of it. In the essay, he gives the example of a photograph of a cathedral, which removes the viewer from the emotional and religious experience of being in the actual building.

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Ex Machina

Ex MachinaEx Machina – “from the machine” – is a British film that is more about philosophy and morality than science. It opens a can or worms, philosophically, that underscores issues now being raised by advancing and increasingly intelligent technology. Its spare but crisp production reminds me of George Lucas’s first film, THX-1138.

Spoiler alert, by the way…

It is, in its essence, a modern exploration of the themes presented in Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel, Frankenstein, using artificial intelligence as the  fulcrum, rather than the reanimating of dead tissue.

The film poses questions that are current in all AI research, but are also important on the larger ethical scale about how we treat intelligence outside our own, robots in this case being metaphors for companion and food animals:

  • How do we define sentience?
  • How do we recognize sentience in others?
  • How do we treat sentience?
  • Is there a separate morality and behaviour for our interaction with non-human intelligence?

None of these are answered in the film, although the quest for the answers is part of the plot (which is also part-thriller). And lingering over all of it is the Turing Test: is it real sentience or simply the illusion of it? And how can we tell the difference?

It also suggests the question of what exactly emotions are:

  • Can emotions be programmed?
  • Are emotions predictable and quantifiable?
  • Can a machine experience emotions?

Then there are the questions about gender and sexuality:

  • Is gender programmable?
  • Does sexuality reside in the intellect or the physical appearance? or both?
  • What attracts men and women?

The film also poses the question that is paramount in Frankenstein:

  • Is the human creation of an intelligence moral or ethical? Can it ever be?
  • What treatment or response does the creation deserve?

And as a sub-theme, the film throws in the morality of slavery and male domination: earlier models of robot appear to be kept as sex slaves by their designer (particularly Kyoko, the assistant and cook, who is revealed to be a robot only half-way through the film – and is perhaps more enigmatic and interesting than Ava, the lead character).

Are these merely sexbots: tools and devices for use, or are they sentient beings? Plus, the main robot, Ava, has evident and expressive sexuality. Is it real/authentic (i.e. a native response) or simply programmed? Are the males  – who both play a dominant role – sexist or sympathetic in their responses to the female robots?

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Fortuna: Why Plans Fail

Niccolo Machiavelli used two words in his book, The Prince, to describe the factors that influenced events. In English these are virtue or character (virtu), fortune or chance (fortuna). Only virtue is internal – our nature – and although it manifests as voluntary action, it can only be somewhat, but not entirely controlled.*

The other – chance or fortune – can make the best-laid plans of mice and men go aft agley, as Robert Browning wrote, regardless of our efforts to the contrary.

In Chapter 25 of The Prince (What Fortune Can Effect In Human Affairs And How To Withstand Her), Machiavelli tried to explain why a leader with free will, with all the means, the desire and resources at his disposal would not always succeed in his endeavours. Virtue alone cannot always win. Luck – chance, fortune, randomness – often simply threw a monkey wrench into the gears.

Machiavelli describes fortune in two metaphors. First as a river that can overflow its banks, treacherously destroying the countryside. That river can be carefully managed by planning for the inevitable flood. Today we would call them worst-case scenarios:

I compare her to one of those raging rivers, which when in flood overflows the plains, sweeping away trees and buildings, bearing away the soil from place to place; everything flies before it, all yield to its violence, without being able in any way to withstand it; and yet, though its nature be such, it does not follow therefore that men, when the weather becomes fair, shall not make provision, both with defences and barriers, in such a manner that, rising again, the waters may pass away by canal, and their force be neither so unrestrained nor so dangerous. So it happens with fortune, who shows her power where valour has not prepared to resist her, and thither she turns her forces where she knows that barriers and defences have not been raised to constrain her.

Machiavelli is saying rather simply: plan for disaster. Prepare for the downturn, the recession, the changing politics, the loss of funding, the changing market. Have alternatives and contingencies ready. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket – for example, don’t base your budget or economic forecasts on the price of oil alone.

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Boccaccio’s Decameron

The DecameronI never read The Decameron in any original, or complete translation. I have a bowdlerized edition I read in part some time ago, perhaps the 1970s. I recall seeing an art film based on the book, in the 1970s (directed Pier Pasolini). But I can’t recall it in any detail, except that it was subtitled. I have an old Penguin edition upstairs, its pages yellowing, mostly unread, but saved for that time in my life I felt able to tackle it. Seems that time has come.

This week I found a copy of a recent translation of the Decameron at a local used book store, a revised Penguin edition,  It’s the same translator – McWilliam – as my old Penguin, but he has redone the book with a revised, updated translation and an enhanced introduction. For me, a comprehensive introduction is always a draw because I want to know about the author’s life, influences, style and times.

It occurred to me, as I stood there browsing it this week, that my literary education was severely lacking in not having read it. Which was all the justification I needed to buy it. Well, to be fair, I really need no justification to buy any book. Reading is such a great pleasure than it is its own reward. A life without books would be shallow, indeed. Oh how sad to have only the drivel in the local paper as one’s sole reading material!

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Team Assessment

Five Dysfunctions of a TeamFollowing my last piece on the relevance of Patrick Lencioni’s book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, to Collingwood Council, I felt I should explore some of Lencioni’s ideas, as well as look at how a team’s performance is assessed.

Teams (or groups) can be assessed several ways: the best way is internally (by their own members). The second is by a professional outsider who has the competence to do so after observing their behaviour in meetings. The third is by outsiders whose role is merely to watch them (as we watch council online or on TV).

The three methods are not exclusive, and those truly committed to the team would accept outside analysis as well as internal, and try to figure out how to best improve their public performance and the perception of it. That’ll happen with Collingwood Council once Hell freezes over. The idea of building a team to work together towards common goals is alien to this group because their ideology forbids it. The keyword being “commitment.”

I might point out that last term, council met twice to prioritize our collective goals and lay out a plan for the term. Staff were involved to provide guidance. Regardless of ideologies, we worked towards accomplishing them. The second meeting was to reiterate those goals mid-term and determine what had been achieved and what remained. That was a real strategic plan: measurable and definite, not a woo-hoo exercise by outsiders, as is the current effort.

In the back section of the book is a 15-statement quiz (p. 192-193) to assess the performance of a team. Three questions each relate to the five areas of dysfunction and they are answered with a point system. Participants assign a score to each statement according to how well they see them as being acted upon in the team. Answering usually gets three points, sometimes gets two, and rarely one. The lower the score in any area, the worse the dysfunction.

Fifteen questions is not a comprehensive method for analysing psychological behaviour, however. On the Table Group website, it offers an online assessment that extends the concepts found in the book. The sample team assessment report suggests there are 38 questions in the online assessment: eight for trust; eight for conflict; seven for commitment; seven for accountability and eight for results.

The statements in the two tests do not directly correlate with one another. For example, in the book, statement one is “Team members are passionate and unguarded in their discussion of issues.” This is actually statement two in the online test, and statement one is, instead, “Team members admit their mistakes.” Question 15 in the book is 25 online, and so on. However, the statements in the shorter test seem to be included in the longer.

The other difference appears to be in the scoring. In the online analysis, there are five ratings: never, rarely. sometimes, usually and always. It isn’t clear in the sample report exactly how the scoring works, but from reading it I suggest it is scored from 1 to 5, respectively, with 1 as worst and 5 as highest score. I gather that the results in each category are added and then averaged by the number of participants.

I decided to rate Collingwood Council based on this understanding, using the questions in the analysis. I tried my best to be honest in my assessment. I’ve added some slides of the key concepts to reiterate the concepts.

Absence of trust

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The Five Dysfunctions of a Team

The ModelYou can’t help but think, when you read that title, of five block-thinking, dysfunctional members of Collingwood Council. But, relevant as that description may appear in our political sphere, it is actually the title of a book by Patrick Lencioni, about how teams fail to coalesce and work together. I found it at a local bookstore this week and read it in a single night. Unlike many of the self-help books on management and leadership I’ve read over the years, this one actually made sense and explained itself well.

As I read it, I realized quickly that Lencioni’s model of team dysfunction applies equally well to politics as to business. And, of course, it applies to Collingwood council as much as to any management team in the private sector. Everyone but the sycophant bloggers observing this council recognize that ours is a highly dysfunctional council. It is not a team, as much as it is a collection of angry, inept ideologues. And it suffers greatly from the dysfunctions Lencioni has outlined.

Now, I’ve long said that in non-partisan municipal politics, we elect a group of individuals, not a team. A team is built, not elected or appointed. Creating a team takes work and commitment, neither of which is in great quantity at council, with a couple of notable exceptions who had some previous experience on council.

As much as the groupthink slate of candidates tried in the campaign to present a coherent platform, all they really offered was ideological opposition to everything the former council stood for. Those who gained a seat in the election have proven both calamitously unable to collectively articulate – let alone implement – a vision for the community, or practice any sort of leadership. They flail, they flounder, they bluster. They have no common, shared vision. They do not function as a team.

Back in 2007, I wrote on my old blog comments that have relevance today:

There’s no real sense of teamwork here because we weren’t elected as a team. Personally, a municipal team at the table is the pig’s ear while the individual freethinkers is the silk purse.
Despite what some special interest groups imagined they were getting when they promoted a slate of what they assumed were their pet candidates, they didn’t get a team. Personal agendas, private goals, independent visions all come into play to make this more like a nine-person tug-of-war. Sure, sometimes we all tug in the same direction, but that’s not necessarily a sign we’re a team, merely that we collectively agree at that moment that the direction is the most appropriate.

Management consultants often like to raise the metaphor of a sports team when trying to build a team from a group such as our council. In Collingwood’s case, imagine if you will its members each wearing the gear of a different sport – one in hockey gear, another in football, one in cricket, one with an oar, another with a bat… then put blindfolds on them all, put them in a room full of balls, pucks, nets, hoops, bases, trampolines and wickets, and tell them to figure out what the rules are. The winner is the last one standing.

That’s the sort of “team” we have in this council. Most of them still haven’t learned the basic rules of procedure yet and blunder about, doing more damage to our municipality than good.

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