Category Archives: book review

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.

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.

Long Term Wisdom from “Built To Last” (Book Review)

In the business world, there’s a cliche that executives only look at their careers in 90 day increments since the pressure to deliver impressive earnings in the stock market is ever present. While some pressure can be helpful, this short term perspective can drive companies into unfortunate decisions such as failing to take an interest in values and succession planning. Reading “Built To Last” Successful Habits of Visionary Companies” by Jim Collins and Jerry I. Porras is an excellent corrective to the short term philosophy that is popular in much of the business world. By citing carefully researched case studies from companies such as Proctor & Gamble, Merck and Walt Disney, the book shares several key lessons on how to build an organization that lasts for decades if not centuries.

Past readings of Jim Collins will know that he prides himself on his robust, social science approach to business research. Just like “Good To Great” and “Great By Choice,” Collins focuses on publicly traded companies though he argues that these lessons apply in other contexts as well. The claim that principles from the business world can be applied elsewhere is not unique to Collins (e.g. this Wall Street Journal article Family Inc suggesting the merits of a weekly family status meeting). However, Collins has made efforts to explore how his ideas can apply in other contexts in the book, Good to Great and the Social Sectors.

The pursuit of grand goals – Big Hairy Audacious Goals (BHAGs) – is one of the most inspiring aspects of the book and a way to bring people together. As a mechanism to stimulate progress, BHAGs are quite appealing, especially when it is a concrete goal. For example, Boeing committed to build the 727, the first in a long series of successful commercial jets. Developing a prototype aircraft required “roughly a quarter of [Boeing's] corporate net worth.” Committing to such a daring project is hard to imagine now – few companies in the 21st century appear interested in taking such risks. Yet, that sense of daring and committment to nearly impossible goals is quality that “Built To Last” associates with visionary, long lasting companies.

Beyond earnings and goals, what is it actually like to work at the visionary companies described in “Built To Last”? Such companies take their people very seriously and tend to invest heavily in home grown management skills and build “cult-like cultures.” At first, the “cult-like cultures” point struck me as extreme. However, “Built to Last” argues that a belief in a company’s elite status is a key reason that IBM grew from a small seller of business machines in the 1920s to one of the world’s most successful companies. The belief in IBM’s self-concept predated the company’s success by decades – that belief helped the company keep going through its tough years. Companies profiled in the book also put their money into culture building: “In 1887, P&G introduced a profit-sharing plan for workers, making it the oldest profit-sharing plan in continuous operation in American industry.” Why build culture? Collins and Porras argue that such culture building activities are an essential way to “preserve the core” of a company over time.

The greatest lessons I’ll take from “Built To Last” is the long term perspective. It’s possible to build organizations that thrive long after the founder is gone. In a time when many people focus on selling companies fast to maximize profits, let’s remember that’s not the only way to run a business. You can build a firm that actually stands for principles like technical innovation (HP), outstanding customer service (Nordstrom) or advancing health (Merck).

 

Are You Decisive? “Decisive: How To Make Better Choices in Life and Work”

We make decisions every day but how often do we reflect on the quality of our decision making? Are we following a robust process or simply acting on the first appealing option that comes along? These questions are some of the points covered in DECISIVE: How To Make Better Choices in Life and Work” by Chip Heath & Dan Heath. The Heath brothers have a highly readable style that weaves together stories and principles. At times, the book reads like a business school case study and I mean that in the best possible way. While I very much enjoyed the book, there were times when it felt almost too readable to qualify as a business book.

The Decisive model has four components which the Dan and Chip summarize with the acronym WRAP. W (Widen Your Options), R (Reality-Test Your Assumptions), A (Attain Distance Before Deciding) and P (Prepare To Be Wrong). While the Decisive model has a less than elegant name, it guides people through some of the standard weaknesses that tend to undermine decisions. The Widen Your Options section makes an excellent point about the value of adding options, especially in cases where a person or group is considering a binary decision (“Should I Do X or Not?”).

In my opening comment, I observed that the book is highly readable. It’s more than a question of style though. Chip and Dan use stories – from social science, from companies like Intel and other environments – throughout. There’s not a single financial statement or equation that in the book. Beyond that, each chapter ends with a “Chapter in One Page” summary that reviews the key principles of the book (e.g. “How do we escape a narrow frame? Think about opportunity cost.”). The book encourages action and the Decisive website includes workbooks, summaries and more.

A few specific tips from the book struck me as particularly helpful. One of the best ways to attain distance before making decision is to imagine you are advising your best friend in the same situation. DECISIVE also makes a great observation on how to make effective use of experts: ask for base rates rather than predictions. For example, instead of asking a lawyer for a prediction on how a given lawsuit will turn out, ask for an average (e.g. “What percentage of cases get settled before trial?”). Data is important but it is not the only consideration – the book also has advice for managing emotions in decisions: the 10/10/10 principle. This principle ensures that you consider your feelings 10 minutes, 10 months or 10 years from now – those future feelings should count just as much as current feelings (the Heath brothers illustrate this tip by suggesting an individual struggling with whether or not to say “I love you”: 10/10/10 suggests there’s not much downside here and much to be gained).

For the curious reader, DECISIVE is only the most recent entry to a growing list of books that explores thinking, psychology and decisions. Two other books in this growing sub-genre that are well worth a read are “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness” by Richard H. Thaler and Prof. Cass R. Sunstein (makes good points about the merits of setting “default” choices) and “Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman (which covers several aspects of psychology and thinking).

“Monkey Business: Swinging Through The Wall Street Jungle” (Book Review)

Monkey Business: Swinging Through The Wall Street Jungle by John Rolfe & Peter Troob For those interested in what exactly investment bankers do, “Monkey Business” provides a highly readable insider’s account of the industry around 2000. As I read the book, I kept making comparisons to Michael Lewis’s account of Wall Street in the 1980s, “Liar’s Poker.” Book books take the reader inside Wall Street by exploring a specific firm. Interestingly, neither firm of the firms described in these accounts exist today. I found “Monkey Business” to be a highly readable introduction to investment banking, albeit from the pre-financial crisis era.

In reading any biography or autobiography, I’m always fascinated by the question: “How did they get started?” In the case of “Monkey Business,” the story is straightforward – attend a top ranked business school (e.g. Harvard or Wharton) and the investment banks come to campus for recruitment. Even as math and other technical skills continue to rise in importance, investment banking continues to be a personal business and that shines through in the recruitment process, Troob and Rolfe are blunt in describing the strengths and, at times, rather embarrassing character flaws of the bankers who recruited them to Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette (DLJ). From what I have read and heard of recruiting elsewhere, campus recruiting remains the most popular way to enter the industry – it’s a high pressure series of interviews where there is fierce competition. That should come as no surprise as bankers are indeed well paid. In February 2013, the New York Times reported that “All told, the average pay package for securities industry employees in New York was $362,900 in 2011″

The day to day work environment at DLJ strikes the reader as a combination of interesting work, long demanding assignments and other assignments. The authors make occasional reference to consulting friends at other friends – such as when they benchmark their compensation – but the book is largely a report of their experience at one firm. I found it interesting to read about the interaction between the different levels of the organization: analysts, associates and firm leadership. Rolfe and Troob also point out that investment banking can be like the army: lots of waiting for action (e.g. at the printing office) between bouts of intense action. Not all work happens at the office – travel is a key part of the “Monkey Business” investment banking business.

When many people think of travel, thoughts of rest and relaxation come to mind. Business travel for bankers is far from that – not only do bankers cope with the pressures of travel itself but there is an expectation that one will keep up with the office back home. As analysts, travel also meant a great deal of logistical work arranging hotels, travel, cars and meetings. Learning how to deliver under such pressure is surely demanding but I expect it is a great way to build one’s discipline.

“Monkey Business” ends with the authors leaving their firm for other opportunities. In different ways, both Troob and Rolfe became disenchanted with various aspects of DLJ. Their decisions were at once personal – a desire to leave the firm for other opportunities and a sense that they did not fit in that world. The book is at once a cautionary tale, a highly entertaining autobiography and a light introduction to the investment banking business.

 

 

Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else (Book Review)

Income inequality is nothing new but PLUTOCRATS explains how the 21st century rich are impacting society and what their rise tells us about the global economy. As a business journalist who previously penned a book on the rise of Russia’s oligarchs, Chrystia Freeland has been observing these changes for a long time. Don’t let the cover of the book fool you – the book is not simply “lifestyles of the rich and famous.” Freeland uses the rise of the plutocrats as a lens to examine a variety of social and economic developments. If economic trends interest you, I highly recommend the book.

Why has our era seen a rise of plutocrats, an ever increasing number of millionaires and billionaires? The answer varies depending on the person and their social context: Russian and Chinese plutocrats often come into their fortunes through state connections rather than the popular American model of launching businesses that sell popular products (e.g. Microsoft, Apple etc). In Freeland’s view, one of the key traits of the very wealthy is their ability to recognize trends and revolutions and respond to them. For example, the fire sale of state assets in 1990s Russia represented a once in a lifetime opportunity to purchase natural resources, factories and companies. Russians who left for the West missed out on the party, a fact that was difficult to appreciate at the time. Respond to the technology and globalization revolutions successfully requires a certain combination of luck and skill.

For readers with a limited background in economics, Freeland’s discussion of rent seeking will be particularly compelling. As Freeland puts it, “in an age of super-wealth, we need to be constantly alert to efforts by the elite to get rich by using their political muscle to increase their share of the preexisting pie, rather than by adding value to the economy and thus increasing the size of the pie overall.” There’s a fundamental difference between the 19th century American “robber barons” whose efforts resulted in railways – a clear improvement for all of society – and those that simply extract wealth. Most of Freeland’s discussion of rent-seeking focuses on Russia, China and India. For example, close ties to the government are all but essential in China. “China’s rent-seekers prospered through privileged access to the two essential economic goods the state does control” land and capital… More than 90% of loans in the country are still made by state-controlled banks.” Without a very close relationship to the state, business success is all but impossible.

Freeland’s ends her book with a compelling conclusion inspired by the economic downfall of Venice. At one time, Venice prospered from trade and innovative economic structures (i.e. shared ownership of long distance trading voyages). However, “we think of social mobility as entirely good thing, but if you are already on top, mobility can also mean competition from outside entrepreneurs.” In the case of Venice, the state changed the rules of the game to favor the establishment and, in the process, killed the goose that laid the golden egg. The question for our time is whether our plutocrats will be successful in changing the rules of the game to suit their self interest or whether the rest of society will advocate for laws and other structures that foster ongoing growth rather than crystallizing the establishment.

Lessons from Winston Churchill: “Churchill: A Life” by Martin Gilbert

Churchill: A Life by Martin Gilbert (Book Cover)Churchill’s leadership during World War Two made him one of the most remarkable leaders of the twentieth century. Recognition of Churchill’s contributions have also been much promoted by Martin Gilbert’s numerous books on Churchill, the Churchill Society and Churchill’s winning of the Nobel Prize for Literature, a rare honour for a statesman. Apart from a few hints here and there, most popular portraits of Churchill focus exclusively on his war leadership. That focus is natural but there is so much more to Churchill’s story; his military career, his considerable literary output and his inspiring speaking abilities. As I had the pleasure of hearing Martin Gilbert speak several years ago, I decided to brush up on my Churchill with his book, “Churchill: A Life.”

Churchill’s father was a politician by training but that was not Winston’s first profession. Churchill beghan in career was in the Army where he served in a variety of outposts in the British Empire including South Africa and India. Even at an early age, Churchill demonstrated great persistence, a quality that would serve him well throughout his career.  It took him several attempts to win admission to Sandhurst, the leading British military academy but he was eventually successful in his studies. After completing a few tours of duty, Churchill went on a wildly successful speaking tour and began his long career as an author and journalist. Reading about Churchill’s efforts to build his public profile reminded me of Michael Hyatt’s book PLATFORM. Even as a young man, Churchill thought about following his father’s footsteps into politics. With that goal in mind, he made the most of his experience to comment on British military and diplomatic policy.

Churchill’s contributions to politics and leadership outside of the World Wars are discussed in considerable detail in the book. One of the most enduring concepts he advanced was the notion of a minimum income, a cause which has been taken up in Canada by Senator Hugh Segal. Churchills political views were complex and different to classify according to modern categories. On some issues, he was certainly a Conservative in every sense of the word but he sometimes found himself at odds with others in the party. Churchill also understood the value of building and maintaining relationships with those who held different views – in the early 20th century, he founded the “Other Club” where MPs of different parties could meet without public comment. By the 1940s and 1950s, he was an advocate of diplomacy with the Soviet Union. Churchill always looked for ways to engage with his opponents.

Churchill Deserve Victory War PosterWorld War Two may be considered the apex of his political career but one needs to remember he was already in his sixties by the time he became Prime Minister. Gilbert paints a vivid picture of Churchill’s life during the war – constant travel, regular communication with Roosevelt and Stalin and so on. At times, the book provides so much detail that one gets lost in it. I suppose Gilbert found it a challenge to condense his considerable scholarship on Churchill – he has written over a dozen books on the man. That said, reading the details, mode of transport and conditions of every single international trip can be overwhelming. In this great detail, Gilbert reveals plenty of interesting details such as Churchill’s efforts to establish a democratic Poland and subject Russian influence in Europe to certain limits. Unfortunately, many of these strategic efforts were frustrated by Stalin in some cases and disagreements with the Americans in other cases.

In sum, I would recommend the book for someone with an interest in Churchill’s contribution to British life. There is much to be learned from Churchill’s flexibility, his incredible energy in many different projects and his reasoned attitude to his foes. If you have an interest in the defining conflicts of the twentieth century, it would be hard to do better by reading about a man who lived through, led and wrote about those epoch defining times.

Book Review: The Profession by Steven Pressfield

The Profession by Steven PressfieldI first heard of Steven Pressfield through Seth Godin who periodically mentions Pressfield’s book The War of Art. In looking through Pressfield’s work, I decided on The Profession. The back blurb of the novel was excellent:

The year is 2032. The third Iran-Iraq war is over; the 11/11 dirty-bomb attack on the port of Long Beach, California is receding into memory; Saudi Arabia has recently quelled a coup; Russians and Turks are clashing in the Caspian Basin. Everywhere military force is for hire. Oil companies, multinational corporations and banks employ powerful, cutting-edge mercenary armies to control global chaos and protect their riches.

Energy and energy politics has been an interest of mine since I read “The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World” by Daniel Yergin. Unlike some other near future authors, Pressfield assumes that oil will continue to be of vital importance in the twenty first century. The fight for oil wealth ultimately founds the backdrop for the stories of mercenaries who start out defending the security interests of their clients only to seize power for themselves.

As a long time science fiction aficionado, I found Pressfield’s speculation on the near future interesting. Pressfield’s future combines highly advanced communications on the one hand and legacy technologies on the other hand. The long legacy of the Cold War, Gulf War and Iraq War are still felt in the novel in the form of old Soviet aircraft, aging firearms and other equipment. The Profession also contains interesting speculations on the future of blogs, media companies and the news media. By mixing the past and speculations on the future, Pressfield creates a believable and unsettling world.

The military and the profession of arms are the starring concepts of The Profession and several of Pressfield’s other novels. The novel paints a complex picture of the military; a community defined by its own language, training and traditions. Pressfield also does well in getting inside the mind of a mercenary. In both the novel and our world, few people start their careers as mercenaries – most start in traditional armed forces and later transition to mercenaries for one reason or another. The prospect of a highly successful and capable figure like the novel’s General Salter becoming a mercenary is disquieting. After reading the novel, one thinks about civilian oversight and control of the armed forces in a different light.

The future of the American republic is the final theme I will consider. The novel has a pessimistic perspective on the question. General Salter serves as the novel’s Julius Caesar whose actions change the republic beyond all recognition. In suggesting martial law and suspension of constitutional government, the novel reaffirms that old expression, “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” Democracy does not preserve itself – it needs constant reinforcement and support to thrive.

For my next book, I will be returning to the world of biography. I will be reading “Churchill: A Biography” by Martin Gilbert. I have been looking forward to reading the book for some time. The book is over nine hundred pages in length so it may take some time before I complete it.