Review: Review: “Review: “Henry IV, Part One” By The Royal Shakespeare Company (2014)” By The Royal Shakespeare Company (2014)

Earlier in the summer, I attended and reviewed Henry IV, Part One on the blog. Recently, I had the pleasure of seeing Part Two with the same actors. All in all, I enjoyed the second part. The two parts have a different tone as plays. Part One has battles and many moments of humor. Part Two is much more tragic. Though the two plays go together, there is no cliffhanger in the modern sense. One could certainly see Part One alone and have a satisfying theatre experience.

I was most engaged by the development of Prince Hal. The prospect of attending to the Throne finally becomes a reality as his father’s condition takes a turn for the worse. In contrast to Hal, Falstaff does not appear to change with the times. Falstaff’s goal is to seek favours from his friend-turned-King.  Falstaff’s grasping for favours, an entirely common action in the Middle Ages and beyond, harm his relationship with the new King.

Review: “As You Like It” by Shakespeare In High Park (2014)

Attending a play performance outside is tradition that goes back centuries. Yet, it was a foreign experience to me until about fifteen years ago. In reading Shakespeare: The Biography by Peter Akroyd recently, I learned that England had a long tradition of outdoor play performance in the Middle Ages and into Shakespeare’s era. My appreciation of performance – and many of other aspects of life – only deepens when I learn the history and background.

When I think of outdoor plays in the modern day, two fantastic benefits come to mind. First, these make for an enjoyable and relaxed summer activity. In many ways, attending the CanStage performance in High Park stills feels like I’m enjoying one of Toronto’s secret pleasures. The second benefit is accessibility. I very much enjoy the Stratford Festival but there is no way of getting around the fact that getting there and back is time-consuming and expensive (in a way, the difficulty of getting to Stratford makes me savour the experience even more though). On the other hand, a summer outdoor performance can be attended right here in Toronto and one can have an excellent experience for the price of a $25 ticket.

Shakespeare in High Park, A Toronto Tradition

In the universe of outdoor theatre performance in Toronto, the Canadian Stage production of Shakespeare in High Park is the best well known. The High Park performances benefit from ampitheatre style seating (an intimate way to get closer to one’s fellow theatre-goers) and a purpose-built stage. It is a professional production. The production staged two plays: “Titus Andronicus” (a Roman play that I have never seen) and “As You Like It” (one of the popular comedies). I was interested in seeing both plays this summer. I saw “As You Like It” first (though this post makes me want to see Titus even more!). I liked the play more than Elli Davis who describes the performance as “pleasant” in her review Get Thee To High Park. I certainly agree that Jaques played by Jan Alexandra Smith is a star of the play (the actress and the role itself remind me of a stereotypical aging graduate student such as Cecilia in PhD Comics).

Liking “As You Like It”

Much of the story of “As You Like It” takes place in The Forest of Arden. So it was a treat to take in the play in a park setting. In much of popular culture, I take the view that romantic love is overdone as a theme (love is great but it is only one part of a full life). Yet, Shakespeare and Can Stage deliver the goods. Weaving together the device of mistaken identity, exile and romantic love, I very much liked “As You Like It.” The comedy also has some delightful wordplay (e.g. “Sell when you can: you are not for all markets”) about the challenges of making a good match in the marriage market.

I’ll end with a long quote that I’ve been thinking about ever since I saw the play on August 2. I’ve been thinking about which Age of Man I belong to know. No longer The Soldier (“Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel”) and yet I wonder if I have the style and bearing of The Justice (“With eyes severe and beard of formal cut, Full of wise saws and modern instances”). Perhaps these different ages of man blend into each other.

Courtesy of: The Web’s first edition of the Complete Works of William Shakespeare (MIT):

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

Review: “Henry IV, Part One” By The Royal Shakespeare Company (2014)

Introducing “Henry IV, Part One”

Henry IV Royal Shakespeare Company 2014On the weekend, I had the pleasure of seeing “Henry IV, Part One” performed. It was a treat for several reasons. Unlike some of the other history plays – Richard III comes to mind – Henry IV appears to be rarer in performance. In fact, yesterday was my first encounter with the play. My comments are not comparative to other performances.

The play’s relative obscurity in performance is particularly striking given some of my recent reading. I’m currently reading “Shakespeare: The Biography” by Peter Ackroyd. In the book, Ackryod explains how “Henry IV” was one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays in his lifetime. The play’s popularity then and now is largely due to Sir John Falstaff, a legendary comic character. Even Queen Elizabeth was a fan of Falstaff.

Anthony Sher as Sir John Falstaff in Henry IV Part iI

Anthony Sher as Sir John Falstaff in Henry IV Part iI

It was indeed the presence of Falstaff that rendered these plays so popular; the first part Henry    IV was reprinted more frequently than any other of Shakespeare’s plays. The first quarto edition was read so often and so widely that it survives only in fragments; there were three reprintings in the first year of publication.” (pg 300) – BLOCKQUOTE

I find it fascinating to learn about the history of the play. Once upon a time, I imagined that all of Shakespeare’s plays were equally popular. In my experience, only a fraction of his plays are professionally performed each year. That fact makes it more difficult to see all of his plays in performance.

Reflections on The Play

Unlike Julius Caesar or Richard III, the title character of Henry IV Part One is almost invisible. In Shakespeare’s time and now, the star character is the Sir John Falstaff. In large part, Falstaff depends on his friendship with Prince Hal, the Prince of Wales and heir apparent, for funds and other support. One wonders how the two first met – their origin story is omitted from the play. In terms of characters, I found Prince Hal and Falstaff most engaging (it helps that Falstaff gets the best lines of the play).

As with Shakespeare’s other history plays, I found Henry IV Part One’s exploration of authority intriguing. Simply possessing the Crown is not enough to sustain Henry’s authority and legitimacy. The play is an interesting object lesson – power is never final. If you ignore the friends and allies that brought you to power in the first play as Henry is alleged to have done, then you risk losing everything. It’s easy to imagine the Middle Ages as a time when monarchs could do as they wished – Shakespeare helps us see that time more deeply (e.g. constant rebellions and shifting alliances were the order of the day).

 Watching Shakespeare In A Movie Theatre

Unlike a traditional performance, I saw “Henry IV Part One” as a broadcast at a local Cineplex movie theatre. The play was performed and recorded earlier this year by the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon. For the most part, I am quite happy with the production. It’s interesting to contrast a broadcast experience to a live production.

The broadcast format added several excellent qualities to the theatre experience. I enjoyed the pre-play interviews for their insight on casting decisions. During the intermission (or “interval” as the British call it), there were interviews and a segment on fight choreography. The fight director discussed how the climatic sword flight between Hotspur and Prince Hal was put together.

There are some downsides to seeing a broadcast production. Camera angles are a mixed blessing in my view. The close ups can work well to see the actor’s expressions – a luxury that is not always possible when one attends in person. On the other hand, the camera limits my ability to choose my area of focus. All in all, I found the movie theatre experience of Shakespeare enjoyable and plan to continue to attending performances.

Note to Cineplex: Please set up an email list to make it easy to find out about upcoming performances of Shakespeare. That would a great process improvement!

Final Notes

I’m looking forward to seeing “Henry IV Part Two” in August. I’m curious to see how Shakespeare handles the Part One versus Part Two dynamic. I wonder if Siobhan Richardson – the fight director – will be there at the next performance of Part Two.

Next On the Blog: I’m going to see “As You Like It” next. Expect a review to be published sometime in early August.

“King John” at the Stratford Festival

I’ve set myself the goal of seeing all of Shakespeare’s plays. I’m also planning to write about my experience. I’m calling it the Summer of Shakespeare. It’s going to be a fun project. By writing about the plays, I will deepen my experience. I hope you enjoy my reviews and notes inspire you. There’s one tremendous challenge in seeing all of Shakespeare’s plays performed. Some plays like “Romeo and Juliet” are performed constantly. By seeing multiple performances, I find that I can appreciate the play in different ways and better understand staging decisions. However, this summer I’m seeking to expose myself to new plays.

The Stratford Experience

Going to Stratford is an experience that I often enjoy. In this case, I enjoyed a Sunday with beautiful  July weather. During the long trip to Stratford, I had the opportunity to finish reading “Imperium” by Robert Harris, an engaging novel about Cicero and the politics of late Roman Republic. I’ve long been interested in Roman history (and, of course, I am a major fan of Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar).

During my visit to Stratford, I had a great visitor experience. I made my usual pilgrimage to the Book Vault on Ontario Street. I ended up buying three great books for $10: “The Paradox of Choice” by Barry Schwartz, “Creators” by Paul Johnson and “Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir,” by Natalie Goldberg. Simply put, it is a great deal with a very robust selection. Beyond shopping, I also enjoyed a picnic lunch by the river – one of the unknown pleasures of Stratford that few visitors have discovered. In the evening, I enjoyed dinner at Pazzo, a place that I would happily return to again (perhaps I’ll dine in the wine cellar room at some point). By the time I took the train home to Toronto, I felt happy and tired (though I managed to finish Lord Beaverbrook by David Adams Richards on the way).

King John Directed by Tim Carroll (#sfKingJohn)

King John Production at Stratford Festival 2014Earlier in July, I had the chance to see “King John.” It’s one of the history plays I have rarely seen performed. In terms of story, it’s interesting to note how Shakespeare’s emphasis is quite different from modern culture. You might think of King John and Magna Carta go together for many people. You might also think about the many unfortunate portrayals of King John in films such as Robin Hood: Men In Tights (1993). Shakespeare’s play makes King John a serious figure struggling to maintain his throne and win a war against France.

I very much enjoyed the play’s staging and direction. The decision to open and close the play with music of the Middle Ages, similar to a Gregorian Chant, set the mood just right. Of all the characters, I was most impressed by Philip The Bastard. Shakespeare gives Philip some of the best lines of the play. Broadly speaking, I also enjoyed the gravitas that Tom McCamus brought to the lead role. It’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that monarchs had unlimited powers and full discretion to do whatever they wish. “King John” shows how the crisis of war and less than supportive nobles put great pressure (and limits) on the monarch’s powers.

When I attend plays, I also enjoy reading the program for added insights. Happily, this performance did not disappoint. Tim Carroll’s essay explaining his approach made a lot of sense to me. It struck me as a thoughtful way to balance honouring Shakespeare’s creation and bringing a 21st century approach. All in all, this was an enjoyable performance! Bravo to the Stratford Festival.

The Summer of Shakespeare

I made a bucket list goal in 2013 to see every one of William Shakespeare’s plays performed.

I realized that I face a challenge. After all, some plays are performed over and over again (“Romeo and Juliet” or “A MidSummer Night’s Dream”) while others (“King John”) are much more difficult to find. Read along in this series as I work through the canon and share some of my observations.

Discovering Shakespeare

I have enjoyed his plays for years. Ever since I saw the first performance of “Julius Caesar” at the Stratford Festival during high school. I had the good fortune of going to Stratford several times to wsee plays during high school and take in a few performances during my university years. Alas, it did not occur to me to make notes on what I’ve seen where (or what I thought about the performance). The sheer volume of what I have forgotten is humbling (and depressing).

With such a broad range of work, many fans tend to focus on certain types of plays – I am no exception. Generally, I tend to prefer the history and tragedy plays the most. In this short post, I’ll lay out some of the plays I’ve seen over the years. The next post in this series will outline my experience seeing “King John” (directed by ) at the Stratford Festival in July 2014.

Where I’ve Seen Shakespeare Performed

  • The Hart House Theatre at the University of Toronto
  • The Stratford Festival in Stratford, Ontario
  • The Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford, England
  • The Globe Theatre in London, England (it was an all female cast playing “The Taming of the Shrew”)
  • Withrow Park in Toronto: Shakespeare in the Ruff
  • Cineplex Cinemas (via the National Theatre Live broadcast)

What’s Coming Up In My Summer of Shakespeare:

  • King John
  • Henry IV (Parts 1 and 2)
  • Cymbeline
  • Anthony and Cleopatra
  • Book: Reading “Shakespeare: The Biography” by Peter Ackroyd

I may yet go to see more plays than those listed above. It’s a great start in any event. It will be interesting to write more about the experience as the summer unfolds. One area for reflection is how the experience – open air, theatre, broadcast – has an impact on the experience. Out of the three options, I find it easiest to focus in a traditional, live action theatre. Broadcast can work well too but the changing camera angles and other movie style aspects of a broadcast sets that apart from a traditional performance.

 

Buffet: The Long Story (Book Review)

Everyone interested in investing eventually hears about Warren Buffet. Some hear about Buffet through his investing track record while others are simply aware of his wealth. For those interested in reading about Buffet, there are no shortage of options: a search on Amazon for “Warren Buffet” books results in over 1000 results. In searching for a single book to read, I focused in on “The Snowball: Warren Buffet and the Business of Life” by Alice Schroeder. Spanning over 800 pages, the reader is taken on a journey through Buffet’s childhood, many business exploits and personal life. At times, the book’s exhaustive detail proved something of a challenge however, it was well worth reading to get a sense of one of the world’s outstanding investors.

In reading biographies, I am often curious to learn about a person’s early life. The Snowball delivers in spades in that respect. I was fascinated to read about Buffet’s paper routes, running a pinball business and other exploits. It was also interesting to read about Buffet’s father, Howard Buffet, an investor and a politician. Father and son did some work investing together but Buffet mostly established himself on his own. Buffet’s early hobbies – collecting information, understanding numbers and systems – are laid out in detail. For the modern reader looking for a lesson, it is telling to read about Buffet’s success in learning public speaking and people skills from the Dale Carnegie Course. It is also interesting to see that a rejection letter from Harvard changed the course of business history. After being rejected from Harvard, Buffet went to Columbia where he studied with Benjamin Graham, author of The Intelligent Investor and Security Analysis. The interplay between Graham and Buffet, both legendary value investors, is one of the book’s greatest qualities.

Buffet’s success in the world of investing, portrayed in great detail, is simply outstanding in the book. As a young man, Buffet read through publications on stocks constantly – he even took a Moody’s publication with him on his honeymoon! Constant reading on business remains a staple of Buffet’s method. It’s clear Buffet has kept up the habit of learning right up to the present. In a telling story, Schroeder relates Buffet’s delight at discovering the Korean stock market and learning the particularities of Korean accounting practices. It’s easy to think that Buffet’s investing approach has always been popular but this is not the case. Buffet’s avoidance of technology stocks during the dot com boom of the 1990s (and at other times) have led some observers to see him as outmoded. Despite this criticism, Buffet’s methods continue to deliver. It’s an excellent object lesson in patience and keeping Graham’s Mr Market at a wise distance.
Buffet’s family life is described in great detail through the book. It’s telling to see how Buffet’s family relationships changed over time. From my perspective, there is one key point on family life to keep in mind. The first is Buffet’s approach to estate planning: he gives some wealth to his family but the vast majority of his wealth is assigned to charitable organizations such as the Gates Foundation. Buffet is very self aware of his good fortune of living in the United States; he describes this as winning “the Ovarian Lottery.” There are some family hardships and challenges in Buffet’s life certainly, including at least one instance of a Buffet relation who attracted press attention.

In sum, I recommend the book for those with the appeitite to delve deeply into Buffet. There is much to learn here – in a way, the book is a personal history of American business and investing. Buffet started out in the business world where the telephone was the only available piece of technology and only adopted computers where he learned about Internet bridge. This was the last book I read in 2013 and it was well worth the effort.

Thoughts on Thinking for A Change by John C Maxwell (Book Review)

Thinking For A Change by John C. MaxwellJohn Maxwell is widely known as an author and speaker on the topic of leadership. Whether or not you are engaged in leading an organization, there is much to be gained from a Maxwell book. His style tends to be heavy on quotations, stories and inspiration. For readers used to footnotes and data tables, it takes some time to get used to his style. Maxwell has written over fifty books so it can be difficult to know which one to choose. Recently, I read Maxwell’s “Thinking for a Change: 11 Ways Highly Successful People Approach Life and Work” and much enjoyed it. Eleven types of thinking are described: I will cover just a few of them in this review.

Why read a book about thinking? After all, many of us think and write every day as we work on our professional projects. Consider the leverage one can receive from improving one’s thinking process: if you could make your thinking 5% or 10% more effective, what could you accomplish? While the book does offer some insights regarding specific procedures to improve thinking, I don’t see that as the main benefit of the book. Rather, “Thinking for a Change” encourages the reader to give care and attention to the thinking process and self-reflection. It occurs to me that the book’s recommendations can help a reader combat common cognitive biases such as the confirmation bias (per Wikipedia “the tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions”).

Maxwell’s insights on strategic thinking are valuable in their precision. Here are some of the strategy points Maxwell makes: plan on different time horizons (e.g. plan the year, plan the month and plan the week). Strategic plannins is a way to build and maintain leadership credibility – just imagine a leader without a strategy or approach for the future! Ultimately, Maxwell sees strategy as “nothing more than planning on steriods.”

The concept of reflective thinking is appealing but it can be a challenge to implement without the right strategies. One approach to increase one’s reflective thinking is to build the habit of a daily journal – Michael Hyatt has a helpful journal template. How exactly do you get more reflective? Maxwell suggests setting aside time for it (e.g. an annual review) and choosing the right context for reflection – a quiet place free of distractions. If you’re unclear what to reflect on, this chapter of the book offers a variety of excellent prompts on values, relationships, experiences. The breadth of Maxwell’s questions here are very good. Having a checklist for reflection prevents one from simply considering the same points over and over again. In particular, I like Maxwell’s focus on looking for lessons and recording successes.

What comes to mind when you read the word “thinking”? It might be a certain famous sculpture by Rodin or some other kind of solitary figure. While such thinking has great value, it does have certain limitations. The book’s chapter on shared thinking points out that thinking with other people over leads to tremendous results. Maxwell is particularly fortunate to have a circle of people who are keen to provide comments and work with him on ideas. If you don’t have such a group readily at hand, consider adopting a brainstorming protocol (e.g. Manager Tools Brainstorming) as a method to produce more ideas.

In close, give some thought to the quality of your thinking today. Is your thinking effective? Do you have structures in place to give your thoughts form and direction? Even if you’re content with your thinking, there’s so much to be gained by improving one’s thinking. Just taking one or two of the thinking approaches described in “Thinking for A Change” could have a big impact.

Next book review: “The Intelligent Investor” by Benjamin Graham.

Learning the McKinsey Mind (Book Review)

Cover of The McKinsey Mind As one of the most prestiguous management consulting firms, McKinsey & Company is a firm that I have wanted to know more about for some time. McKinsy may not be as large as the Big 4 firms – Deloitte, PricewaterhouseCoopers,  Ernst & Young and KPMG – but it has an excellent reputation. While I may not ever work at the work, I was determined to learn some insights about how the firm approaches work. In that respect, “The McKinsey Mind” by Ethan M. Rasiel and Paul N. Friga was a successful book. Written in a very light and accessible style, this is one of the few business books I’ve read that would be easy to read on a trip (and still gain valuable insights). In this review, I will share a few key insights I learned from the book on framing business problems, gathering data and managing the client. While I found aspects of the book valuable, several people have commented that “The McKinsey Way” is a better book.

Defining the problem, whether in science or business, is absolutely vital – otherwise it is easy to spend energy and resources in the wrong areas. The key concept from this section is “MECE” (mutually exclusive, collectively exhaustive) helps people think through problems comprehensively. The advice to follow a structure reminds me of  The Checklist Manifesto by  Atul Gawande – it’s great advice. Without a template or checklist to follow, it’s easy to forget important steps as one works toward a goal. While I wouldn’t quite agree with the following statement: “When McKinsey-ites exit the Firm, they are often shocked by the sloppy thinking processes prevalent in many organizations,” I would agree that more attention to the art of problem solving would certainly be worthwhile. Logic trees – systematically mapping out the various factors at play in a given problem – is one way to visualize the different players involved. The advice to develop an initial hypthesis early on the problem solving process also has merits.

Without the right data in hand, there is simply no way to know if one’s proposed solution to a business problem will work. The external data gathering sections (i.e. which resources to use at the library) was nothing new to me and may not be particularly valuable to a professional who is already aware of what is happening in their industry. The most valuable advice the authors share here concerns interviewing as a way to gather data. While it’s easy to focus on data that comes neatly packaged in databases and spreadsheets, many critical details can only be discovered through interviews. The advice to develop an interview guide (i.e. list of questions), listening actively during the interview and following up with a thank you note are excellent ways to use intervieewing to gather data.

Even if you don’t work in a consulting firm, you have clients to manage. For example, if you work in a corporate function like IT that provides services to others in your company, this chapter of the book has some interesting ideas. For example, the recommendation to “make the client a hero” strikes me as interesting but challenging to implement. In some cases, a line of business requesting software or some other support simply wants the goods and they are not really interested in this kind of engagement. On the other hand, for large projects that require extensive change management effort, the book has plenty of good ideas on implementation.

Transferring insights developed at a consulting firm to a broader audience is a challenging task. Rasiel and Friga succeeded on several points – especially the early chapters on Framing the Problem, Designing the Analysis and Gathering the Data. At times, the authors came across as unreasonably confident that McKinsey practices can be implemented universally. For example, a professional who has been at their firm several years versus a consultant brought in for a 90 day engagement are likely to approach problems differently. The consultant approach outlined in the book will not be appropriate in all cases, but specific practices in the book such as Prewiring A Meeting do have near universal value. I recommend the first half of the book but seeing as the whole book is approximately 200 pages, it is just as easy to read the entire volume.

Beyond 2008: What’s Behind “The Great Degeneration” (Book Review)

The financial crisis of 2008 was the first time I paid very close attention to the world’s financial industry. A crisis demands attention, decisions and, last but not least, explanations. I’ve read several books on the financial crisis since 2008 but “The Great Degeneration: How Institutions and Economies Die” by Niall Ferguson stands apart. Ferguson is not concerned with the fate of particular firms or seeking to establish a blow by blow account of when decisions were made. Rather, Ferguson sees the crisis as simply one more chapter in a longer story of socio-economic dysfunction. Based on his BBC Radio 4 Reith Lectures 2012, the book covers a lot of ground in less than 200 pages.

Building on his argument from “Civilization: The West and the Rest,” Ferguson argues that institutional problems account for much of the problems in the Western world. In his view “excessive debt, mismanaged banks and widening inequality” are little but symptoms of an “underlying institutional malaise.” So what institution is breaking down? Ferguson’s analysis of the excessive debt as violating a longstanding informal pact between the generations – running up large debts today largely amounts to transferring resources from future generations to the present. As firms and financial markets tend to be forward looking, this negative view of the future may be slowing growth in the here and now. Viewed through the lens of intergenerational relations, debt takes on a much more sinister aspect.

With allusions to Bleak House, “The Great Degeneration” makes a case against our era’s penchant for complex laws and regulation. In fact, Ferguson makes the claim: “The financial crisis that began in 2007 had its origins precisely in over-complex regulation.” There’s certainly a case to be made for the impact of unintended consequences of laws and regulations. For example, placing a high value on AAA rated securities creates incentives for rating agencies and banks to produce more products with that rating. To reduce such problems in the future, Ferguson recommends emphasizing regulatory discretion and increasing punishments:

Voltaire famously said that the British periodically executed an admiral pour encourager les autres. All the detailed regulation in the world will do less to avert a future financial crisis than the clear and present danger in the minds of today’s bankers that, if they transgress in the eyes of the authority on whom their business ultimately depends, then they could go to prison.

One of the key ways that banks measure risk is based on loss events with a dollar sign – e.g. fines, court judgements etc – so such regulator actions would certainly command much attention. Absent clear enforcement actions, it is difficult for risk managers to quantify the impact of regulations and factor them into models.

The decline of civil society organizations is Ferguson’s last main argument. While the chapter came across as an updated Bowling Alone with a British slant, it was interesting to see this point made as an explanation for economic decline. Dramatically increased state spending on welfare programs including health care and pensions explains part of the decline of associations. However, voluntary associations – rather than the loose networks of people from the Internet – are often the best place to solve certain kinds of practical problems such as cleaning up a beach. While I am certainly sympathetic to Ferguson’s argument that the decline of voluntary associations is lamentable, I don’t agree with his view that the state should significantly alter the education system (though the success of American charter schools bears closer study).

As an economic historian, Ferguson brings a fresh perspective to the financial crisis. Though parts of his argument will be familiar to students of the financial crisis, his long term view has me thinking more deeply about the issues. In the criminal justice system, mandatory minimum sentences have been promoted as a way to stop crime but I have yet to see any compelling evidence to support that view (indeed, the evidence suggests that they are harmful for the individual and wasteful for society). In the same vein, Ferguson makes a good case for simplifying regulation and increasing enforcement – essentially increasing the discretion of regulatory organizations to make decisions. For readers looking for a more in depth financial history, I would strongly recommend The Ascent of Money also by Ferguson.

Where We Are and other Geographical Insights from “Maphead” by Ken Jennings

Cover of Maphead by Ken Jennings In our time, we enjoy an abundance of maps and geographical knowledge. Whether you are a smart phone user with a map app or if you prefer the texture of road maps, it’s easy to find maps that show you how to travel from point A to point B. In Maphead: Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks, Ken Jennings shows that the world of map enthusiasts – and the map industry – is far richer than simple navigation. I do find maps of some interest (I have an enduring fondness for maps as I received a Canadian atlas as a prize in high school for academic achievement) but I never thought the field could be quite so deep as Jennings puts it.

Unlike the world of rare book collectors, map collecting remains a fairly accessible hobby but one wrought with its own pitfalls. Like the world of stamp collecting, many of the world’s most valuable maps contain errors (e.g. there is a small mania for maps depicting California as an island). Unfortunately, maps are also relatively portable relative to books – tales of map theft from libraries and other owners are far from unknown. The world of map collectors is slowly aging and Jennings points out that the group may cease to exist if younger people do not take up the cause.

Lest one think this book is only concerned with the past, rest assured that there is a lively discussion of geo-caching and the National Geographic map challenge for school children. I had heard of geo-caching before but had never looked into it. Imagine a treasure hunt that is solely focused on the hunt – the only prize is the glory and recognition one wins from other geo-cache hunters. In my view, geo-caching is a rare case of technology actually encouraging people to explore the outdoors while encouraging them to build problem solving skills at the same time.

As fantasy fiction fans know, maps can play a vital role in fiction. Jennings discusses at some length how maps have been an indispensable component in fantasy ever since JRR Tolkien penned “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings.” For those familiar with the opening sequence of HBO’s Game of Thrones series, they will appreciate that maps are essential in helping the reader to understanding and visualizing the fictional worlds that authors create. I have no doubt that academics and critics have explored the role of maps in fiction at length but this was the first time I came across a compelling explanation:

If nothing else, talking to mappers of imaginary worlds has taught me that there’s a greater pleasure in maps than mere way-finding… If you never open a map until you’re lost, you’re missing out on all the fun. As Robert Harbison once wrote, “Nothing seems crasser to a lover of maps than being interested in them only when you travel, like saving poetry for bus rides.”

Whether you are interested in the history of maps, the state of geographical knowledge, map technology or the world of map enthusiasts, “Maphead” is an enjoyable read. The book also makes me wonder what is being lost with the increasing adoption of GPS and computer enabled way-finding. Is this like the slow transition from manuscript books to printing – a change that ended up putting low cost books in many hands and encouraging the sharing of knowledge? Or does the decline of geographical knowledge suggest we are losing ready access to a kind of literacy that helps us imagine and understand our world? The question remains open but I don’t think I’ll ever look at maps quite the same way again.