For the first part of 2021, my reading mainly consisted of Agatha Christie and John le Carré novels which I found were very easy to read with a tiny baby asleep on you. But as the year went on I found more time to read non-fiction and some more contemporary fiction. My top few of each were:
Our lady of perpetual hunger by Lisa Donovan – best known as a pastry chef whose work in New Orleans gained her international acclaim, this is a book about far more than cooking. It’s a phenomenal memoir and inspiring parenting and professional tale. But it also makes you want to try some of those old fashioned desserts from the American South.
The Premonition by Michael Lewis – there’s still nobody better at taking a technical and often bureaucratic system and making it into a gripping yarn. The Premonition is the story of the people who helped make sure that covid wasn’t as bad as it could have been under Donald Trump’s presidency.
The Key Man – brilliant reportage about something very close to home in my day job. Abraaj was one of the first high profile international investment firms that called themselves impact investors. They had billions under management – the trouble was, it was all based on lies and fraud. There are lessons for all of us in the impact investing world from the book but it’s also a cracking good read as Wall Street Journal journalists Clark and Louch piece together what really happened.
Everything I learned about life I learned from PowerPoint. Russell Davies settled down in lockdown to write this love letter to a piece of software that is both a wonderful piece of social commentary and a compendium of tips for how to give better presentations. I remember first seeing Russell do a presentation at a conference in Newcastle years ago and knowing straight away that he was a master of the craft.
Contacts by Mark Watson – I think Mark Watson is one of the best comedians of his generation but he’s also a fantastic novelist. This is an alternative take on the power of social media and smart phones. I can’t work out whether it will feel dated in a few years time or whether it will still make sense. Having read all those Agatha Christie novels earlier in the year I think it might last.
Broken Stars by Ken Liu. I’ve developed a liking for Chinese sci-fi and this year I read another collection of short stories. There are several that have stuck with me, particularly one where lives run in the opposite direction through Chinese history since 1945. It’s a phenomenal piece of creativity.
Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky – this however was the best sci-fi I read in 2021. Adrian Tchaikovsky deservedly won the Arthur C Clarke award for this. So many nooks and crannies of imagination and you’re left thinking very differently about our possible place in the universe.
It was an odd year but I really enjoyed reading. I made it through a book every couple of weeks – 26 in total – and these were my favourites. Maybe this year I’ll make it to a book a week.
Wilding by Isabella Tree – my review here. This genuinely changed the way I think about nature and the countryside.
The Man Who Solved the Market by Gregory Zuckerman. A brilliantly written story of Renaissance, the incredibly successful investment firm created by Jim Simons. The problem was it didn’t have a purpose other than making money and that eventually made monsters or bitter men of its senior staff – including one of them becoming the biggest backer of Donald Trump’s election 2016 campaign.
Eat a Peach by David Chang – a great book about business and mental health with the odd bit of cooking thrown in.
Exhalation by Ted Chiang – Chiang is the author of the piece that became the movie Arrival. This collection of short stories is a great selection of new writing.
The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard. It won the US National Book Award in 2004 and is set in the aftermath of the Second World War in Asia and Europe.
Agency by William Gibson. He’s still cyberpunk and still great. His new novel is set in near-future/current San Francisco and a future London. I loved it.
I really enjoyed Underland by Robert Macfarlane. It’s an account of his journeys to places that could be thought of as underworlds – entrances to hell – or at least places hidden from human eyes. Macfarlane is a naturalist and environmentalist. He’s also not afraid of caving or climbing which helps. But he’s also one of my favourite writers – I love his tone and turn of phrase.
The book starts in a mine in North Yorkshire where in one direction the tunnel heads under the Yorkshire Moors but in the other, it disappears underneath the North Sea.
One of the most interesting chapters for me is set a few miles from our home – in Epping Forest. It explores an underground world that isn’t as inaccessible as caves on the Norwegian coast but is nonetheless hidden from most of us – the underfloor of the forest. It turns out that scientists are now starting to realise that trees are societies too. They are able to communicate and transfer water and nutrients to one another underground over large distances. Roots are amazing things.
He also visits caves that have been scarred by war as well as caves that have hidden burial sites and art for millennia. Glaciers that are deep under the ocean and hold ice that is hundreds of thousands of years old. Caves in Somerset that were settlements well before Stonehenge was built. And modern caves that are being built to hide some of the most dangerous things we’ve been responsible for – particularly nuclear waste.
He mentions a project to warn future (potentially non-human) generations about sites that hide deadly nuclear waste. Some people think that generating stories and myths about the sites might be better than any sign or warning ‘sculpture’ you could create. His guide tells him the workmen on the project joked when they first started digging they’d find the nuclear waste of some previous civilisation that we had no idea ever existed.
This was my first book by Robert Macfarlane and I loved it – I’ve read several others since.
Rewilding has been in the news this week with the UK government’s commitment to protect 30% of the country to increase biodiversity. Wilding is a fantastic place to start for people wanting to understand the theory and practice of helping nature thrive.
Back in the 1980s, Isabella Tree and her husband Charlie Burrell inherited a large farm and house in Sussex. They carried on working the farm until the late 1990s but it was becoming increasingly hard. The land was marginal – it was only really half meant for agriculture. It had thick clay and was pretty hilly and part of the land around the house was protected because of its ‘look’ as parkland, which indeed it had been for generations.
The thing that got them thinking though was a visit from a specialist to look at their oak trees. He told them the oaks were suffering. The land near them was being ploughed too often and he started to explain how they were part of a much wider ecosystem that was being disrupted by the agriculture on the farm. They started to think about what the land had been like before modern agriculture and realised that actually the ‘farm’ had only been that way since the second world war when Charlie’s grandfather had ploughed it up to produce food for the war effort. Before that as they delved into the history books, much of it had been scrubland or small fields. They also discovered accounts of much wider range of species on the land than was present in the 1990s.
As they started to research how they could attempt to return some of these species they came across a project in the Netherlands that was started in the 1970s. It wasn’t ‘rewilding’ as such because the land was newly reclaimed from the sea but the group had managed to create incredible biodiversity just a half hour drive from Amsterdam airport. The secret was understanding the role of large browsing animals in moving the earth and vegetation in order to get symbiosis between different species to start. If you just ‘left’ land it would gradually revert to full canopy woodland. You need large animals to keep some of the saplings in check in order to have grasslands and meadows and all the other types of ecosystem that biodiversity needs.
Back at Knepp, they sold all the farm machinery and animals and brought in a few long horn cattle and ponies and tamworth pigs and waited to see what would happen. Over the following 15 years (20 now I guess) they had huge outbloomings of all kinds of plants and insects and birds. It’s now one of the most biodiverse places in the UK and they’re justifiably proud of their ‘lack of work’. It’s perhaps a blueprint for how part of the UK should be managed in the future.
I’ve written here before about how I think biodiversity and rewilding could be a big movement in the future (and tech for good could play a part). Isabella Tree’s book is both a fantastic read and a wonderful contribution of lessons learned as that movement gathers pace.
I really enjoyed Morgan Housel’s new book The Psychology of Money. I’ve read his articles and blog posts for several years and the book is a rounded summary of his approach.
His starting point is that money is a very odd thing. While we try to make it ‘scientific’ in the investment world and in mainstream economics, it’s really much more complex than any one theory or model can cope with. There’s a lot of Daniel Kahneman’s influence in the book as well as nuggets from the most prominent proponents of value investing.
For me the best chapter is “When You’ll Believe Anything” about the hold that stories have on the way we think about economic decisions.
“When we think about the growth of economies, businesses, investments and careers, we tend to think about tangible things – how much stuff do we have and what are we capable of? But stories are, by far, the most powerful force in the economy. They are the fuel that can let the tangible parts of the economy work and the brake that holds our capabilities back.”
I’d like to see him go more into the psychology of impact investing – how does the social or environmental impact of the money you invest make a difference to decision making. He’s very well positioned to do that as his day job these days is with Collaborative Fund.
I think it does make a difference. My experience is that impact investors tend to be more long term and less shaken by short term shocks. There’s less gambling in the impact investment world and I think that’s partly to do with the aims of the investors.
Every now and then a book comes along at just the right time. Impact by Sir Ronald Cohen is one of those books. It was written before Covid (there’s an inserted page at the beginning that references as much) but everything that has happened in 2020 just goes to strengthen the argument.
Ronnie starts by telling a little of the history of impact investing – how it had many beginnings but really gathered momentum after the term was coined at a meeting in 2008. But part of the story is also about ‘social investing’ – a term that goes back to the 90s – and ‘ESG investing’ which really started back in the 80s with activist investors attempting to get funds to divest from stocks that they felt were harmful to the planet or whose ethics they disagreed with. Sir Ronnie has been involved in many aspects of this history from helping to create the first social impact bond to chairing government task forces on the topic and as founding chair of Big Society Capital. He’s certainly made his mark on many of the important building blocks of the impact investing world.
But I think it’s the logic and argument of the book that really resonates right now. Lots of people feel that our current form of capitalism is destroying itself and that the relationship between government, finance and social and environmental progress needs to change.
For investors the idea of measuring returns is obvious. From ancient times, the idea of lending or investing capital in order to gain a return has been one of the foundations of our economic system. Businesses raise money, put it to work, and then pay back their investors with a return.
In the 20th century, the concept of risk became much better understood – how can we measure the risk to the return that is being promised by taking into account volatility, political issues and so on. The financial services industry got better and better at measuring the risks of various types of investment so helping them to make better decisions.
In the 21st century, Cohen argues, impact will be added to the equation. All investment decisions will take into account return, risk and impact. He argues that technology has enabled us to calculate and assess all of these much more accurately and impact is in many ways easier to measure than risk.
I was lucky enough to interview Ronnie a couple of weeks ago for our Practical Optimist newsletter. You can see that interview below.
Bad Blood is a fantastic book and an amazing journalistic feat. The drama is still playing out as I write this with the main characters facing criminal charges and likely to stand trial this year. Like Enron: the Smartest Guys in the Room it’s a brilliant set of lessons about how a company can be rotten but the system of investors and regulators forget to trust their sense of smell. And like the Enron book (in that case Bethany McLean who wrote an article in Fortune magazine posing a simple question — how, exactly, does Enron make its money?), John Carreyrou helped uncover the scandal — he’s part of the story, which makes it an even better tale.
It’s particularly interesting to me because in one version of the story Theranos could have been an amazing tech for good impact investment. It made me wonder how we would have reacted at BGV — would we have spotted the fake?
Theranos was founded in 2003 by 19-year-old college dropout Elizabeth Holmes. Her dream was to revolutionise medical diagnostics by creating a simple, cost effective way for people to get their blood tested from a tiny sample. If she had achieved that, it would indeed have had a huge positive impact on the world. The trouble is that it’s a very hard thing to do.
Holmes was joined at the helm of the company by Sunny Balwani, who made some money in the first dot-com boom and was also her boyfriend. Bad Blood is littered with examples of them making terrible mistakes and hiding information from people (including that they were a couple). Their paranoia was extraordinary — to the extent of fitting bullet proof glass in Holmes’ office and having people trailed when they left the company. What they were covering up for was that the technology they promised didn’t work.
In the business it’s known as ‘fake it til you make it’ and all tech startups do it to a degree. You often have to convince investors that what you’re going to do will be revolutionary before you’ve actually built it (after all you need their money to build the thing). One famous example is the video that the Dropbox founders created to judge whether or not it was worth building the software in the first place. But raising peoples’ hopes of better document synching is one thing — raising the hope of quick, painless diagnosis of diseases is another. Richard Waters is great on the subject in this FT piece.
All the signs were there with Theranos. But hindsight is a wonderful thing and there were many investors, customers and journalists who were duped. Holmes and Balwani got plenty of things wrong but it was the system that allowed them to gamble with peoples’ lives that was really rotten — and it still is.
It’s a strange story when Rupert Murdoch comes out of it pretty well. Despite losing the whole $120 million he’d invested he refused Holmes’ attempts to spike the story at the Wall Street Journal which he owned.
One aspect of the story makes me think we wouldn’t have fallen for it at BGV is that most of the investors seem to have made their decisions based on who else was involved. A classic case of groupthink. We’re always the first investor so don’t have the ‘luxury’ of seeing who else is investing. We also don’t invest very much to start off with so we get to work with teams (usually in very close proximity) before we decide to invest larger amounts. I’d like to think we would have worked out that the Emperor wore no clothes in this case. And finally we’re very sceptical of ventures that insist on secrecy — we think there’s an important link between true tech for good and openness and transparency.
Believe it or not, I was a teenage heavy metal fan. Growing up in the Midlands I had the albums, the posters and the t-shirts, but never the long hair and tight trousers — I don’t think I could have pulled those off. It’s weird looking back and realising that all the music was on cassette and vinyl. It makes me feel very old.
Anyway, one of my favourite bands was Iron Maiden and I’ve just finished lead singer Bruce Dickinson’s autobiography ‘What does this button do?’ which is a lot of fun. I’ve been listening to the audiobook (which Bruce narrates himself) on long drives and on the bus and tube when I’ve had a chance. There have been many moments when I’ve struggled not to laugh out loud and I think my fellow passengers have wondered what was going on.
Alongside the Spinal Tap style antics that I think every band of the era went through, the thing that comes through is the incredible work ethic in the band and constant experimentation. The characters are just fantastic, co-manager Rod Smallwood comes out of the book very well and sounds like a bit of a legend. Metal is a peculiarly British thing. Its origins are in the Midlands in the 60s and 70s but it went on to influence the whole British music scene and had a huge effect on the US as well. This radio documentary is ace if you ever want to know more.
While there’s a lot about the band in there, most of the book is about the things Dickinson has done outside music. He’s kept himself busy to say the least. He’s been a world class fencer and created a best selling beer for example but his real passion is flying. He started out flying small single propellor planes and over time became a qualified airline captain. Most recently flying the band and all their gear around the world on tour in a Boeing 747. There are long passages about why he loves it as well as a few terrifying near misses.
Dickinson makes an unusual decision for an autobiography to not even mention any relationships or kids. There’s an afterword that explains why but you do notice it. It’s almost a work memoir rather than a life memoir. I’ve seen other reviews that criticise the book for that — saying it feels like he’s hiding the real him — and I do agree. Nevertheless it’s a fantastic book and well worth a read — not just for teenage metal fans.
As I write this it’s unclear whether the current British Government will survive. Amidst the chaos, spare a thought for the civil servants who have to keep the show on the road. They’re incredibly important.
For a description of why their expertise matters, read Michael Lewis’s new book The Fifth Risk. It’s terrifying. There’s no other word for it. It examines what’s been happening in the transition from the Obama to Trump administrations.
Lewis interviews people who worked in three of the most ‘boring’ and misunderstood government departments — Energy, Agriculture and Commerce. Actually those departments are responsible for nuclear safety, the US food supply and predicting the weather — including tornados. Without their expertise and knowledge, the US would be an extremely dangerous place.
You could sum up his conclusion on the machinery of government as ‘I think you’ll find it’s more complicated than that’. It takes dedicated, intelligent, experienced people to make things work. The implications of the complete failure of Trump’s people to understand this are scary but perhaps the worst is the nuclear threat. That’s where the title of the book comes from. The first four risks rattled off by the person who used to run nuclear safety are fairly obvious — a dirty bomb, a broken arrow and so on. But the fifth risk is ‘project management’. There is no evidence that the Trump team understands that and good people further down the organisation are leaving in their droves.
Fortunately, we have far fewer political appointments in the UK so the majority of the machinery of Government remains when you have a change of political leadership. I know ‘experts’ are out of favour at the moment, but I for one am very glad they exist.
The Third Plate by Dan Barber really got me thinking. Barber is the world renowned chef behind two amazing restaurants: Blue Hill in Manhattan and Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York state. I haven’t been to either but after reading the book would love to. Barber also features in the first series of Chef’s Table on Netflix which is about him as a chef. The book is about a much bigger topic — the future of food.
The ‘third plate’ in book’s title is the imaginary plate of food that Barber would serve as ‘the future’ in a menu of the past, present and future of our food system. He has studied the history of farming and our diets in incredible detail, and the book catalogues all the problems it has created. He does this from the perspective of a chef who sees how it plays out in the taste of ingredients and not from an environmentalist’s point of view. His view is we’ve created an agricultural system where crops don’t taste nice, make us unhealthy and in the long run destroy the soil they’re grown in.
Barber stands out as a chef because of his relationship with the farmers who grow the ingredients for the restaurants. He’s a keen advocate of the farm to fork movement and the book describes his adventures learning about extraordinary farmers around the world. The sections in Spain where he learns about ethical foie gras and some amazing techniques for farming fish are particularly good. It’s not as simple as a transition to organic agriculture because none of our systems are set up to deal with that. It’s also very possible to grow organic mono-crops which don’t do much to help the land or the taste and health benefits of food.
You can tell a lot about a society from its food and thinking about the future through the medium of what we’ll eat and how we’ll grow it is an interesting exercise. It’s an area we’re super interested in investing in at BGV. It’s the intersection of technological and natural that interests us.
Transportation costs and labour shortages could drive agriculture closer to cities. Some people call this urban farming, others vertical farming (because if you do it in built up areas, the logical thing is to build farms upwards rather than sideways — we’ll measure farms in stories, not hectares). We’ve already invested in LettUs Grow in this area.
We’ll see huge leaps forward in understanding the microbiome of soil and plants in the coming years. We’re interested in technologies that will make this easier and more useful.
We’re also interested in technology that supports rewilding as agriculture reduces as a percentage of land use. We need to be prepared for this because it’s not just a case of leaving land to nature. We’ll need to be careful that we rewild properly — the chances of invasive species wrecking areas of land is pretty high.
The Third Plate is an excellent book. Well worth a read if you care about the food that you eat and where that might come from in the future.