Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Bad Boy

I love mystery novels set in Britain.  Even when they're written by a Canadian.  Well, Peter Robinson was born in England and spends half of each year in Yorkshire, but he is now a Canadian.  I've loved reading about his Detective Chief Inspector Alan Banks: his keen detective skills, his irreverent attitude to police rules that get in the way of detecting, and his many romances with interesting women. 

In Bad Boy,  with Banks away on a holiday in the US, his partner, Annie Cabbot takes a report from a distraught woman that results in an assault from an armed response team.  Events quickly spiral out of control, putting Banks' daughter Tracy at risk at the centre of the case.  Banks has everything at stake, as he works desperately to uncoil the threads of this case.

As usual, Robinson delivers great suspense, encompassed in smooth prose.  Recommended for some of your light summer reading.

Monday, July 25, 2011

The Finkler Question

The Finkler Question was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize in 2010.  Clearly other people, with more literary discrimination than I, liked this book.  A lot.  I didn't.  A lot. 

I guess I just didn't get it.  Other reviewers riffed on the book's reflections on love and loss.  Yes, there was some of that.  Some raved about the humour in the book.  I've searched my memory for a moment when I laughed, or chuckled, or even felt my lips curling up in a smile.  Couldn't find one.  One reviewer said the book read like a conversation between Sigmund Freud and Woody Allen.  Ah, there's a clue.  I don't like Woody Allen movies either.

To me, the book seemed to revolve around, not love and loss, but one man's search for identity.  Two characters in the book, Sam Finkler and Libor Sevcik, are Jewish.  The book is told from the point of view of Julian Treslove, who is not Jewish, and calls all Jews Finklers.  Can it be that he can make racist comments more easily when he doesn't refer to people as Jews?  Treslove makes his living impersonating famous people at posh parties; could you have a stronger metaphor for a man who doesn't really have his own identity?

The book documents some emergence of anti-Semetic feelings around the world, which disturbs me.  But to leap from that to 'Half the world wants to kill Jews and the other half wants to be Jews' was absurd for me.  Treslove falls into the camp of wanting to be a Jew.  In fact, on scant - well actually zero - evidence, Treslove decides he is Jewish.  This theme occupies the core of the book.  When Treslove says, "I mean Jews.  Don't you get sick of our, their, self-preoccupation?",  I was hard-pressed not to agree.

 I think I would have liked the book better if I had developed a shred of liking for the character of Treslove.  Then I might have found his search for identity more interesting.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Faithful Place

Frank Mackey is a Dublin police officer.  He has done his best to distance himself from his dysfunctional family and the memories of growing up poor in a cramped flat on the little street called Faithful Place. 

Mackey escaped from Faithful Place twenty years ago.  He and his girlfriend Rosie were to meet late one winter night and escape to England where they could get married, get good jobs and have a better life.  When she didn't turned up, Frank just never went back to Faithful Place.  An ambiguous note he found at their meeting place kindled his belief that Rosie abandoned him and made her way to England herself.

Mackey built a life as a policeman and married a beautiful woman from a much higher social class but he never got over the pain of Rosie's loss, dooming his marriage to failure.

Now, twenty years later, he gets a call that Rosie's body has been found, and he is sucked back to Faithful Place and into the heart of his family.  Family dynamics haven't changed much over the years and this story is as much about delving into those past relationships within the Mackey family and among the families on the street as it is about solving the mystery of Rosie's death.  Poor Frank Mackey is caught in the middle, trusted neither by the street, nor by the police as he doggedly pursues although not officially assigned to the case.

Faithful Place is a walloping good story and Tana French's writing is strong.  She evokes a real sense of place in Dublin and the bitter picture of a family full of bitterness and resentment.  I am definitely going to be reading more French.

Interestingly, French grew up in Ireland, Italy, the US and Malawi.  But she seems to set all her writing in Ireland.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Help

Jane Minett - guest reviewer

This blog post is the first written by an invited contributor.   

My friend Jane Minett was telling me how much she enjoyed the book The Help, and I thought "why not have this articulate and thoughtful woman write a review for the blog?"  

Jane loved the book.  She's promised to lend it to me, and I can't wait.  

Here's the review:

The Help, by Kathryn Stockett, takes place in Mississippi in the early 1960s when segregation is still the order of the day, and any white family who could afford it hires “help” to attend to the domestic chores -- cooking, cleaning, looking after the children.  The irony is that these “coloured” maids, who looked after the complex running of a household and were trusted with the care of their employer’s precious children, weren’t considered worthy to enter by the front door or to use the family toilet.

The Help is written from the perspective of three remarkable women.  One is white, a young woman just graduated from university, who aspires to be a journalist.   She returns home from school to find her beloved Constantine, the maid who raised her from a baby gone, summarily dismissed by her mother with no explanation or apology.  We see her entering a vacuous world of Junior League meetings, bridge clubs, and small-town gossip.

The other two women are maids, both black. One is a kind, gentle, middle-aged woman; the other is older, wiser, more cynical, and often has trouble remembering “her place”.  We see both the black world and the white world from the perspectives of these “invisible” and previously silent black women.  Everything is pretty much as it’s been since the Thirteenth Amendment freed the slaves.  Or is it? 

Enter the Civil Rights Movement.  Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., James Meredith.  You can feel the tension of the impending collision of the segregated south and the mere idea of civil rights.  So how does that translate to the ordinary everyday lives of the maids and the families they work for in small town Mississippi?

This is a story of maids, an idealistic aspiring journalist, and their friends.  Of hope, of justice, of bravery, and the determination of ordinary people who do extraordinary things.

I have heard this book compared to To Kill A Mockingbird.  That’s a fair comparison because The Help also evokes the deep south at a time when something important was about to happen.  You can almost feel the intense humid heat.  It’s also beautifully written with engaging characters and a real sense of place and purpose.  It was hard to put down.

I highly recommend this book.  

Friday, July 8, 2011

The Dark Room

The Dark Room is a novel by Rachel Seifert about Nazi Germany.  Well, it's really three separate short stories or novellas, linked by their common theme.

The first story is about Helmut.  Ineligible for the army because of a birth defect, Helmut pursues his passion for photography in Berlin.  He is meticulous in recording the changing city through photography and his hobby for counting trains and passengers at the main train station.  He captures and documents the dramatic changes without ever having their import seep into his consciousness.  A strange and unsympathetic character indeed.

In the second story, we meet Lore, thrust into caring for her four siblings after her mother is arrested for Nazi activities by the occupying forces after the war.  Her mother instructs her to make her way from Bavaria in southern Germany to Hamburg way in the north.  It's a long walk!

The last story is about Micha, a professor in modern Germany, who learns his beloved grandfather was in the SS-Waffen and suspects he was guilty of atrocities during the war.  His search for the truth about his grandfather troubles him, and strains his relationship with his family and his girlfriend.

The stories provide three very different viewpoints on Germany and the war.  I found the first one somewhat antiseptic and the last one a bit overwrought.  However, I did enjoy the book and recommend it.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Innovator's Dilemma - one of the best 6 business books of all time

This week, The Economist launched a quarterly review of business books.

For their inaugural review, they chose the best six business books of all time.  They included The Innovator's Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail, by Clayton Christensen.  I fervently agree with this choice, as this book was the seminal work that sparked my deep interest in innovation, and Christensen's ideas form the nucleus of my MBA courses on innovation.  My opportunities to work with Clay have been among my most stimulating intellectual experiences; amazingly he's a really nice guy besides.

There are several reasons The Innovator's Dilemma is worthy of this honour.  The first is that it presented a sound theoretical basis for the concept of disruptive innovation and why successful companies can go into a sudden tailspin when their industry is disrupted.  Many business books present anecdotal evidence of how a particular company (or a selection of companies) achieve success; then they extrapolate that behaviour as if it's a general formula for success applicable to all companies.  In contrast, Christensen identifies the industry dynamics that call for different behaviours at different times.  The Innovator's Dilemma sheds light on how a company can be disrupted; The Innovator's Solution and later works provide guidance on how to defend against disruption, or go on the offensive to disrupt an industry yourself.

The second reason the book earned a place on this very short list is because of the impact it's had on the business world.  Christensen coined the term disruption to describe a particular kind of innovation that 'disrupts' a whole industry.  Such innovations are not the ones with the most bells and whistles or the most sophisticated technology.  Rather counter-intuitively, they are just good enough on traditional attributes, but deliver a new kind of value with a revolutionary business model.  

This idea links to one of the other books on this list The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid: Eradicating Poverty through Profits by C. K. Pahalad. The people at the bottom of the pyramid have been considered unattractive because of their limited disposable income; but when you add up billions of these individuals, the market suddenly becomes interesting.   This market needs products that are good enough for their needs, not necessarily to the standard of the top of the pyramid - good enough is almost always better than nothing.  Yet these products that start at the bottom of the pyramid are relentlessly improved over time, and we're starting to see some very interesting products appearing in the developed world that were originally designed for those bottom-of-the-pyramid markets.  GE's portable ultrasound device is a typical example of this.  Developed in India, it will make ultrasound more convenient and cheaper for the whole world.  This is true disruption.

Christensen regrets attributing disruption to technology in his original book; he came to realize that it's the business model that does the disruption.  In fact, in his modest way, he credits Andy Groves, legendary CEO of Intel, with this insight.  In the paperback release of The Innovator's Dilemma, the new subtitle The Revolutionary Book That Will Change The Way You Do Business eliminates the word technology.

Because of The Innovator's Dilemma, the business community has an understanding of the fundamental cause of cycles in the life and death of companies, and how to deal with those cycles.  The powerhouse incumbents in an industry will no longer be taken completely by surprise by such disruptive innovations, the way Kodak was devastated by digital photography, or Western Union by the telephone, or newspapers by Internet content and advertising.

Just today, Jackie Hutter posted on Blogging Innovation how to choose a partner for a company with a radically different battery technology.  Discouraged with their first foray with a big company that didn't seem to get the potential of disruptive innovation, she hypothesized that understanding Christensen could be a filter for choosing partners.  "At a minimum, if the person on the other side of the phone has not read any of Christensen's books, we probably don't want to have a second call".

Christensen has written other books, exploring disruption in specific industries, and what DNA it takes to be a good innovator.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Emerging Markets

"What's different today about emerging markets compared to ten years ago?" 
"Today they're emerging."

Chuckle for a minute.  Then think about it.  It's a very telling statement*. 

The term 'emerging markets' was coined thirty years ago by Antoine van Agtmael, to replace the perjorative terms previously used for the less developed world.  These economies represented one third of global GDP thirty years ago, but now they make up more than half.  More importantly, they accounted for more than four fifths of global GDP growth over the last five years.  Finally those countries are, well, emerging.

The Economist has just published an interesting article about emerging markets, assessing the common concern that their economies are overheating.

They chose six different indicators that might indicate overheating of an economy - inflation rate, average GDP growth rate since 2007, labour markets, credit expansion, real interest rates, and external current account balance - and concluded that the likeliest worst danger lies not in oft-discussed China, but in Argentina.

There is a depressingly long list of countries where something could go wrong.  And with the world so intertwined, and with emerging economies accounting for most of global growth these days, it's not a pretty picture.

Interesting analysis.  This post is a departure from my normal topics, but perhaps others will find this interesting too.

* I read this exchange recently but can't remember where, so pardon the lack of attribution.

Monday, July 4, 2011

The Makioka Sisters

The Makioka Sisters from the movie

Do you love Jane Austen and her detailed description of families and the social conventions that frame their lives?  Then you'll love The Makioka Sisters, by Jun'ichiroTanizaki.  Much like Jane Austen's writings, it's an intimate portrait of a family, especially the women and their marriage prospects, embedded in a description of Japanese societal conventions just before World War II.

The Makioka Sisters,Tsuruko, Sachiko, Yukiko and Taeko, are navigating a changing Japanese society through the years 1936-1941.  They can be insulted by a note written on the wrong kind of paper, they dress in traditional kimonos, they observe significant anniversaries of the parents' deaths and make an annual pilgrimage to Kyoto for viewing cherry blossoms; yet the youngest daughter Taeko symbolizes modernity by dressing in western clothes and trying to support herself and her independence.

The two oldest sisters, Tsuruko and Sachiko are married, and the book chronicles the efforts to marry off the third sister, Yukiko.  With the parents dead, the final verdict on suitability rests with the 'main house' and Tatsuo, the oldest sister Tsuruko's husband.  Yukiko and Taeko 'should' be living in the main house. However, since they don't get along very well with Tatsuo, they manage to spend most of their time with Sachiko and her kind and supportive husband Teinosuke.  Thus Sachiko feels responsible for finding her sister a husband.

The Japanese custom is for the family to arrange marriages for the daughters, and detailed research is carried out by private investigators to assess worthiness. The Makioka family was once a merchant family of high standing; however it's been slipping lately.  In the past, the family has haughtily rejected many suitors for Yukiko's hand, based on very stiff requirements.  Now the tables are turning, and with the family fortunes in decline, they are relaxing those requirements.  But the potential suitors are dwindling and getting choosier themselves: the family is reduced to producing chest X-rays to reassure suitors Yukiko is healthy and starting a regimen of injections purported to clear up a blemish above her eyebrow.

Yukiko's unwillingness to speak in the presence of a suitor or on the telephone dooms some prospects and drives Sachiko to distraction, but still the Makiokas do not force the meek and passive Yukiko's hand.  Indeed, Yukiko seems passive-aggressive - apparently disinterested in marriage she virtually sabotages some approaches, without ever saying outright that she is unwilling.  As the desperation intensifies,  the Makioka family does nothing proactive to seek a husband; they must wait for proposals from matchmakers, most notably their aggressive no-nonsense hairdresser.

Meanwhile Taeko, the youngest sister, is at the mercy of these negotiations, because she can't marry before her older sister.  Taekio has been foiled in her desire to marry the man he loves.  Admittedly, Okubata is a lazy, cheating dandy but prohibiting Taeko to marry or see him hasn't been a very effective countermeasure.  Taeko's aborted elopement with Okubata was unfortunately reported in the newspaper and has clouded Yukiko's chances.  As she strains for independence, she ricochets from one undesirable liaison to another.  For such an introverted novel, there's a lot going on!

There is little mention of the political situation going on outside the family.  The Sino-Japanese war is refered to as 'the China incident', and in these difficult times, social events have to be more muted, but there's little sense of the impending war (Pearl Harbor is just a few months away).  This is definitely a novel whose stage is inside the house, with the outside world merely a blurry backdrop to the main action. 

I highly recommend this book.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

An Apple Experience

Recently I wrote about great customer experiences at ING Direct, especially at their new cafe in Toronto.  Amazingly, I've just had another customer experience worth writing about - at the Apple store in downtown Toronto.
Apple store - Toronto Eaton Centre

Past experiences at the Apple store revolved around the Genius Bar  - getting expert help with my iPod at the promised appointment time.  This time, I was in a hurry to buy a blue wireless Jambox speaker.  There was one left on the shelf, in black, and the store was thronged with customers and buzzing with activity.  As far as I could see, the many Apple staff in blue t-shirts were all occupied with customers.  I was never going to get out of there in time for my next appointment!

Then, one of the staff instructed me to go to one of the iPads lined up on the long tables, and click in the bottom right to call for a salesperson.  The screen instructed me to stand there and someone would come to me.  After a minute or so, I clicked again and was told there were 2 people ahead of me and did I still want to wait?  I clicked on yes, and a salesperson promptly showed up.  I told her what I wanted and she walked me to the back of the store, where she sent someone off to the back room to fetch the blue Jambox, the last one in stock as it happened, and put it in a bag for me.  She had a mobile device in her hand (an iTouch?), with a card reader.  So she captured my credit card info and asked me to sign on the touch screen, then walked me to the door, and grabbing my receipt off a printer mounted under a table near the door.  Presto, I was finished in time for my next (ugh dentist) appointment.

What a fabulous experience.  Quick, efficient, and showing off Apple technology all the way.