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The Art of War

The Art of War, by Sun Tzu.

The Art of War, by Sun Tzu.

I recently finished reading The Art of War for a second time. The book in itself verses on tactics, strategies and concepts related to war. However, today it is recommended for and applied to several fields, from politics, to business management and sports.

The first time I read it I was fresh from having completed an MBA and soon joined the strategy department of Airbus Military, the company I work for. I then took an interest to it from the strategy point of view. However, this time I wanted to read it framing myself from the teamwork, communication and leadership point of view. I found it again, a very enjoyable and useful read.

The book is attributed to Sun Tzu, a Chinese military general, strategist and philosopher who lived in the ancient China (544-496 BC). The version I read is a Spanish translation (by Alfonso Colodrón) from the English translation by Thomas Cleary. If you’re an avid reader of business literature you’ll probably have found some quotes from the book. The ones I remarked this time from the point of view I approached it (the emphasis and comments between brackets are mine):

The Army on the March

If you are careful of your men, and camp on hard ground, the army will be free from disease of every kind, and this will spell victory.

Peace proposals unaccompanied by a sworn covenant indicate a plot. [think of inter-departament relationships]

If there is disturbance in the camp, the general’s authority is weak. [indecision]

The sight of men whispering together in small knots or speaking in subdued tones points to disaffection amongst the rank and file. [engagement]

Too frequent rewards signify that the enemy is at the end of his resources; too many punishments betray a condition of dire distress. [rewards vs. engagement; purpose; self-realization]

To begin by bluster, but afterwards to take fright at the enemy’s numbers, shows a supreme lack of intelligence.

He who exercises no forethought but makes light of his opponents is sure to be captured by them.

If soldiers are punished before they have grown attached to you, they will not prove submissive; and, unless submissive, then will be practically useless. If, when the soldiers have become attached to you, punishments are not enforced, they will still be useless. [reminded me of Jack Welch and the need to discriminate]

Terrain

Regard your soldiers as your children, and they will follow you into the deepest valleys; look upon them as your own beloved sons, and they will stand by you even unto death. If, however, you are indulgent, but unable to make your authority felt; kind-hearted, but unable to enforce your commands; and incapable, moreover, of quelling disorder: then your soldiers must be likened to spoilt children; they are useless for any practical purpose.

Take a look at the book. It can be read in no more than one afternoon. Depending from what perspective you take you will draw some conclusions or others. Some passages will not relate much to your current situation, but several others will.

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My 2012 reading list

At the beginning of the year I set as a personal objective to read at least 15 books. This will be a low number for some of you and a high one for others. To me it looked challenging but achievable… though, I did not achieve it. I completed 10 books and started other 4 which I have not yet finished (they’ll be included in the next year reading list).

See below the list with a small comment for each one, the link to a post about the book in the blog (when applicable), links to Amazon (in case you want to get them) and sometimes to the authors. I have also included a small rating from one to three “+” depending on how much do I recommend its reading:

  1. This time is different” (by C. Reinhart and K. Rogoff) (++): very interesting book offering a comprehensive book to economic and financial crises since 8 centuries ago. The book is full of graphics, statistics, example, anecdotes… I already wrote three posts about it: “The Republic of Poyais“, “The march toward fiat money” and “¿Cómo le ha ido a España en esta crisis?“. 
  2. Le Petit Prince” (by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry) (++): even if narrated as a children’s book, it contains several idealistic messages, fine criticisms of how adults behave, etc. The teachings are mainly transmitted through conversations between a child and the prince and encounters with other characters… I wrote a post about it “Le Petit Prince“.
  3. The consequences of the peace” (by John M. Keynes) (+++): the book was written at the time of the Versailles Conference after the World War I, which he attended as a delegate from the British Treasury. In the book, Keynes explained how the disaster in the making was being produced, due to lack of communication between representatives from USA, UK, France and Italy, and the intention from Clemenceau of taking as much as possible from Germany. Keynes makes a series of estimates of Germany’s production capabilities and that of the regions being taken from it and comparing them with the pretensions that were being included in the negotiations of the treaty. In the book, he warns well in advance the economic and social disaster that the treaty is going to send Germany into. (I have not yet written a specific review of the book, but since I had underlined several passages I don’t discard writing it).
  4. Le bal des ambitions” (by Véronique Guillermard and Yann le Galès) (+): the book tells the story behind the creation of EADS and its first years. Very much like in a thriller, it gives account about the characters involved, the battles for power, etc. I wrote a post about it “Le Bal des ambitions“.
  5. Desolé, nous avons raté la piste” (by Stephan Orth and Antje Blinda) (+): The book consists of a series of awkward situations in a flight described by passengers, pilots and cabin crew, mainly miscommunications between the crew and passengers or funny messages received from the cockpit. The book originated after a collection of the anecdotes posted by readers of the online version of Der Spiegel. . See the review I wrote about it “Sorry, I missed the runway“.
  6. Poor Charlie’s Almanack: The Wit and Wisdom of Charles T. Munger” (by Charlie Munger, compiled by Peter D. Kaufman) (+++): the book is a compilation of Munger’s speeches, quotes, interviews, articles, letters, etc. Some of his speeches are available in Youtube (e.g. this one given for the commencement of USC Law in 2007). One of the main takeaways is the use of several mental models to analyze situations we live in our lives (instead of being stalled in the few models which we are more comfortable with). Another recurring topic is the lack of training in psychology that we get (or even his criticism of how psychology is taught in faculties). I haven’t written a post about the book, but I think I should, if only to share more of his wit and wisdom with you.
  7. The Peter Principle: Why Things Go Wrong” (by Laurence J. Peter) (+++): the book is a hilarious account of situations that arise in companies and institutions of why and how people are promoted, cornered, etc., or in his words is a treatise on hierarchology. The name of the book comes from the Peter Principle which says: “In a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence”. I already wrote about it here.
  8. 2010 Odyssey Two” (by Arthur C. Clarke) (++): the book is a sequel to the famous “2001: A Space Odyssey“, and there is a movie as about this book. The story starts with doctor Heywood Lloyd travelling in a combined Soviet-American mission to Jupiter in order to find the spaceship Discovery One from the previous mission and what went wrong with it… I won’t tell more of the plot to avoid spoiling it for someone. I would say that I liked more this book (and movie) than the first one.
  9. The Litigators” (by John Grisham) (++): this novel is very much like most of John Grisham. In this one the plot is about a star young lawyer graduated from Harvard Law School who cannot stand the pressure from a big firm and quits it to join a mediocre small firm with two partners who chase victims of small accidents to help them get some  compensation from insurance companies, with the hope of reaching the big class action which could make the rich.
  10. Soccernomics” (by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski) (+++): the authors use economics’ techniques, plenty of data, statistics, citing several papers, studies, etc., in order to bring up uncovered issues about football (such as transfer market, what makes some nations more successful in football…) or refocus the attention about other ones. See the review I wrote about it.

I also completed two other partial objectives: to read at least 2 books in French and 2 about politics/economy. And as always, on the learning side from reading there is Twitter (a source of information or distraction?), the subscriptions delivered to home of the weekly The Economist and the two monthly magazines Scientific American and Toastmasters.

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A hilarious anecdote of General Braxton Bragg (by U.S. Grant)

A small post to share a hilarious anecdote I read today in the “Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant” (which I started reading some months ago, and about which I expect to write further later on in the blog).

After relating how the Battle of Chattanooga was won, U. S. Grant explains in the book some key moves made by the confederate general Braxton Bragg, his personality, etc.

Bragg was a remarkably intelligent and well-informed man, professionally and otherwise. He was also thoroughly upright. But he was possessed of an irascible temper, and was naturally disputatious. A man of the highest moral character and the most correct habits, yet in the old army he was in frequent trouble. As a subordinate he was always on the lookout to catch his commanding officer infringing his prerogatives; as a post commander he was equally vigilant to detect the slightest neglect, even of the most trivial order.

I have heard in the old army an anecdote very characteristic of Bragg. On one occasion, when stationed at a post of several companies commanded by a field officer, he was himself commanding one of the companies and at the same time acting as post quartermaster and commissary. He was first lieutenant at the time, but his captain was detached on other duty. As commander of the company he made a requisition upon the quartermaster—himself—for something he wanted. As quartermaster he declined to fill the requisition, and endorsed on the back of it his reasons for so doing. As company commander he responded to this, urging that his requisition called for nothing but what he was entitled to, and that it was the duty of the quartermaster to fill it. As quartermaster he still persisted that he was right. In this condition of affairs Bragg referred the whole matter to the commanding officer of the post. The latter, when he saw the nature of the matter referred, exclaimed: “My God, Mr. Bragg, you have quarrelled with every officer in the army, and now you are quarrelling with yourself!”

… I tried to rationalize it: having those two hats at the time, Bragg might have wanted to leave in written a record of his request from one side and his denying of it from the other… seeing the reaction of the commanding officer, it seems that there wasn’t a rational side to it. 🙂

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Soccernomics

Soccernomics.

If you love football (soccer) and have read one of the books of the “Freakonomics” saga or any book from Malcolm Gladwell, then “Soccernomics“, by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski (430 pgs.), will be a great read for you.

The book is written in the same style as the other books mentioned above: using economics’ techniques, plenty of data, statistics, citing several papers, studies, etc., in order to bring up uncovered issues about football or refocus the attention about other ones. Some examples:

  • Mastering the transfer market. Departing from the example of Billy Beane in baseball, described in “Moneyball“, by Michael Lewis (of which a movie was also made starring Brad Pitt), the authors show how pouring money in transfer markets doesn’t bring titles. The key issue is to have a balanced net investment (sales/acquisitions). In soccer the main example would be Olympique Lyon which will “sell any player if a club offer more than he is worth”, for which each player is previously assigned a price (much like value investing).
  • The more money is paid to players the better (in salaries). Instead of buying new expensive players it seems to make more sense to pay well and ensure the adaptation of the stars already playing for the team.
  • The market for managers is not yet very open (e.g. no black coaches in main European teams), thus many of them do not make a real difference. There was even an English team Ebbsfleet United who dispensed the coach and allowed subscribed fans to vote the player selection for each match.
  • The book, written at the beginning of 2012 forecasted that soon teams from big European capitals would win the Champions’ League, being those capitals: London, Paris, Istanbul and Moscow. Few months later Chelsea won its first one, let’s see the others.
  • The main factors for the success of football national teams seem to be the experience (international games played by the national team), wealth and population.
  • The authors give much weight to Western Europe dominance of football due to the interconnectedness of continental Europe. Explaining the rise of Spain in the ’90s and ’00s due to its growth in population, improved economy since joining the EU, more experience and exchanges of styles with coaches of other countries.
  • The authors claim that future national football will be dominated by countries such as Iraq, USA, Japan or China.

As you can see there are many different topics, all with some data to support them (even if sometimes you doubt about the consistency of their claims, e.g. their statements on industrial cities as dominating football, dictatorships, etc.). I marked many pages with some anecdotes or papers that I would like to read.

One final anecdote: tips given to clubs and teams in KO competitions in case they face a penalty shoot-out. In the Champions’ League final of 2008, Chelsea and Manchester United reached the penalties. An economist had given Chelsea a study of Manchester goal keeper and penalty-shooters. Once you read the book and the tips the economist provided (“Van der Sar tends to dive to the kicker’s natural side”, “most of the penalties that Van der Sar stops are mid-height, thus is better to shoot low or high”, “if Cristiano Ronaldo stops half-way in the run-up to the ball chances are 85% that he shoots to his natural side”…), it is quite interesting to actually see that penalty shoot-out and how the different players acted.

[Pay special attention at Van der Sar’s reaction at 09’40”, when it seems he noticed about Chelsea having been tipped]

I definitely recommend this book to football fans. I also recommend two other books about which I wrote in the blog some time ago: “How soccer explains the World” and “Historias del fútbol mundial“.

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The Peter Principle

The Peter Principle says: “In a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence“.

The Peter Principle.

The book, by Laurence J. Peter, is a hilarious account of situations that arise in companies and institutions of why and how people are promoted, cornered, etc., or in his words is a treatise on hierarchology.

You probably have heard about the principle at some time. The author exposes a lot of other related concepts with invented jargon, including plenty of examples that we may have seen in our companies. The account of those seemingly contradicting, irrational, incomprehensible situations but which are so familiar to us is what makes the book hilarious.

Some of those other concepts and ideas introduced by the book:

  • The percussive sublimation: when someone is kicked upstairs to get him out of the road and unblock other promotions.
  • The lateral arabesque: when an incompetent employee is given a new and longer title and is moved to an office in a remote part of the building (easier in larger hierarchies).
  • Peter’s inversion: when internal consistency is valued more highly than efficient service (“xxx is methodical, consistent, he co-operates, is steady…”).
  • Pretty pass: getting out from under an incompetent to go up the ladder in a parallel circumvallation.
  • Flying T formation: organizations with plenty of VPs with few workers at the bottom… (I’m sure you can picture the T in your mind… and your organization).
  • Occupational incompetence is everywhere (a universal phenomenon).
  • In time, every post tends to be occupied by an employee who is incompetent to carry out its duties.
  • Work is accomplished by those employees who have not yet reached their level of incompetence.
  • You be the judge. Look at the mirror and ask whether… (there are no exceptions to the principle).

Years later, professor Edward P. Lazear, from Stanford Graduate School of Business, published the paper “The Peter Principle: A Theory of Decline“,  where he analyzed the principle and substantiated it with mathematical formulae. As he describes in the abstract of the paper:

Some have observed that individuals perform worse after being promoted. […] Being promoted is evidence that a standard has been met. Regression to the mean implies that future ability will be lower, on average. Firms optimally account for the regression bias in making promotion decisions, but the effect is never eliminated. Rather than evidence of a mistake, the Peter Principle is a necessary consequence of any promotion rule. […] Usually, firms inflate the promotion criterion to offset the Peter Principle effect, and the more important is the transitory component relative to total variation in ability, the larger the amount that the standard is inflated.

If your promotion has been reject, you find yourself overwhelmed with your current job, you have consciously decided to go along in the office with minimum effort trying to be unnoticed, are happy with your current job and do not wish to be promoted by any standard… go and read the book 🙂

***

I have already mentioned sometimes in the blog that every time that I pass by an airport (and that is often) I try to go to the book shop to see if I can grab something interesting. I was after this book since I read about it in another book “Management gurus” in 2010 (of which I already wrote a review – in that post I remarked 4 punching books I wanted to read, one was this) and found it two years later at Dubai International airport, this only reinforces that habit :-).

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Le Petit Prince

Le Petit Prince.

Last summer I visited an exhibition on occasion of the celebration of “2011 Year of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry”. Elsewhere he is mainly known as the author of “The Little Prince” (Le Petit Prince), however I learnt in that exhibition that in Toulouse he is mainly known as an aviation pioneer, flying airmail routes (for the emblematic Aéropostale based in Toulouse) and then for the French Air Force.

I guess that some of you had read Le Petit Prince early in your lives, I didn’t. I received the book as a present from former colleagues when moving to France and only finished it some weeks ago, being the first book I’ve read in French. Not bad for a start, as according to the Wikipedia it is the most read book in French language and was voted as the best book of the 20th century in France.

It has some idealistic messages or fine criticisms, to name a few:

  • “One sees clearly only with the heart. What is essential is invisible to the eye.”
  • A businessman who goes on “owning” stars and counting them not having time for anything else, not knowing what to do with them and having a very serious thought of him.
  • The geographer, proud of his profession, but who lacks any practical knowledge as “that” is the responsibility of someone else, the explorer in this case.
  • The concept of domestication being two-ways. I loved when the prince goes Il y a une fleur… je crois qu’elle m’a apprivoisé… (“There is a flower … I think she domesticated me …”) I believe this could be applicable to many pet owners.

I felt especially caught when the book first said “Les grandes personnes aiment les chiffres” (adults love numbers) and later when it went:

“Si les deux milliards d’habitants qui peuplent la terre se tenaient debout et un peu serrés, comme pour un meeting, ils logeraient aisément sur une place publique de vingt milles de long sur vingt milles de large. On pourrait entasser l’humanité sur le moindre petit îlot du Pacifique.

Les grandes personnes, bien sûr, ne vous croiront pas. Elles s’imaginent tenir beaucoup de place. Elles se voient importantes comme des baobabs. Vous leur conseillerez donc de faire le calcul. Elles adorent les chiffres: ça leur plaira.

(“If the two billion inhabitants who people its surface were all to stand upright and somewhat crowded together, as they do for some big public assembly, they could easily be put into one public square twenty miles long and twenty miles wide. All humanity could be piled up on a small Pacific islet.

The grown-ups, to be sure, will not believe you when you tell them that. They imagine that they fill a great deal of space. They fancy themselves as important as the baobabs. You should advise them, then, to make their own calculations. They adore figures, and that will please them.”)

When I read the first paragraph and before reading the second, I was already writing a remainder note to make the calculation…

In demonstrations, the range of people per square meter is between 2 and 3.5 (4 being “like a rock concert”). A square of 20 miles by 20 miles covers an area of 1,035 millions of square meters. Therefore, in such a square we could pack between 2 and 4 billion people, the population of the Earth at the time, yes.

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Summary of (my) 2011

Let me share with you a brief recap of my 2011 (as I already did last year).

If I then characterized 2010 as a learning year, I would say 2011 was a year on the run.

At the beginning of the year I set out my objectives for 2011, of which I have achieved 71.4% (just above my 70% target!). One of them was only to “become again a frequent runner”, for which I set up some modest steps, e.g., buy new running shoes, run 3 days before mid-January, run a 10k popular race before November, lose some 10kg by June… If there was a yearly objective which I widely met, it was this one:

Último kilómetro de los 100km de Millau 2011.

Last kilometre at the ultramarathon "100km de Millau".

  • I ran over 170 days along the year, covering over 1,800 kilometres.
  • I took part in 11 popular races, including 6 of 10km, 2 half marathons, 1 marathon (42km) and 1 ultramarathon (100km). More races and more kilometres than ever before.
  • I found myself running in Granada, Villa del Río, Madrid, Torrelodones, Luarca, Rijswijk, Wijchen, Toulouse, Luz Saint Sauveur, Chicago, Washington DC, Des Moines, Montreal…

Learning. After taking some classes in Madrid, I continued studying French and now I feel more confident when facing shop attendants :-). I had to learn and continue to learn lots of new things every day at the new job where I landed about a year ago.

I still enjoy as learning moments the print weekly issues of The Economist or the monthly issues of Scientific American. I delivered the necessary speeches to become ACB within Toastmasters (though lately I’ve missed more meetings than I should). Finally, I read a dozen books along the year (a bit less than in previous years, though some in the new eReader!), being the ones I liked the most the following: first, second and third.

Investing & helping others. I set myself a high objective of saving and investing: I overachieved it by around 50%. I once mentioned it in Twitter: the best thing behind investing is the discipline of saving that is behind it. I not only dedicated a percentage of personal income to savings but as I announced in a post at the beginning of 2010, I directed a percentage to different charities. I initially set it out to be 0.7% of my income, but after raising some funds and contributing others to charities related to the races in which I am taking part, in the end this percentage has been well over 1% in 2011.

Travelling. We together visited Montreal, Ottawa, DC, Chicago, Omaha, and several places in the south of France and throughout Spain. The moment that I liked the most was attending the Berkshire Hathaway annual shareholders meeting, no doubt.

Javi 2.0. I continued to often write in this blog with some remarkable posts. I admit that my twitter account is one of my biggest sources of information / distraction.

Sports. Apart from the running, I recently re-started playing paddle with colleagues, became a kind of fan of the rugby local team, Stade Toulousain, had to subscribe to Canal + not to miss any of Real Madrid matches while living abroad.

Other reasons for joy have been:

  • our friends Teresa & Alberto, María & Óscar, Isa & Pedro got married,
  • we welcomed the newborns Mar, Hugo, Luis and Eneko, while another of our friends is pregnant today (that we know),
  • my sister Beatriz started working as an intern; my brother Jaime continued to enjoy his job in Airbus and moved to a new apartment; my mother Fidela continued to take several courses (and to give wonderful massages) and my father Juan Bautista finally and happily retired (after working for 43 years!).
  • Luca completed all the requirements to become a full-fledged lawyer, winning some court cases in the process.

To close the year, I started taking flight lessons, pursuing another childhood dream. This will allow me to continue learning and experiencing new things!

Now it’s time to update the objectives setting for 2012. This year the exercise will be easier as I already have the methodology and the habit. If the objectives are well chosen and challenging enough, next year’s account will be even shinier.

I wish you the same: a shinier 2012, enjoy it!

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