What am I reading, why am I reading it, and what am I learning?


Many people have asked me what I am reading and why on a fairly regular basis. Most recently, Derek Anderson (@half_way_there) posed the question, and here’s my answer. [I won’t write a blog post on each book I read, but will try to cover most of them.]

What: I am currently reading the third volume of Neil Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle, The System of the World.

Why: I have a tendency to find an author I like, and then go nuts and read almost everything he or she has written. I recently completed the 39th book in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, and wanted something new to read. I scanned the list of award-winning science fiction authors that I hadn’t read before, and tried out Stephenson’s Diamond Age. I enjoyed it enough that I bought (in print form) everything else he has written. Going by order of publication, I read Snow Crash, then Cryptonomicon. Although the Baroque Cycle was published AFTER Cryptonomicon, it is essentially a prequel, with many of the characters in the Cycle being the forebears of characters in the later book.

Looking at the four volumes en masse, we are talking 5 kilograms of dead trees, 3,775 pages, and roughly 2 million words of fiction.

Dead Trees? And Fiction? Yup, and yup. You will want to check out Deloitte TMT Predictions when they launch on January 13, 2015, as there will be an entire topic about the future of print books. Although I also own and read some eBooks on my tablet, my strong preference is for traditional print. The Prediction will cover some of the reasons why I (and billions of other readers) feel the same way, but this shot of my bookshelves may help you understand!


I read between 100-150 books in a given year. Non-fiction makes up at most a couple of books. There are three big reasons why I almost exclusively read fiction. 1) Between research reports, media articles, and think pieces I read 3-4 hours of non-fiction daily already. A little balance is needed! 2) Most business books have to be written in a certain way: they don’t sell if they don’t provide answers. But I don’t want (or trust) other people’s answers, I prefer information and ways of thinking that I can use to craft my own answers. 3) Fiction (especially fantasy and science-fiction) is often criticised as being ‘escapist.’  When I think about the world of 2014, and the issues we will confront over the next decades, books that talk about artificial intelligence, quantum computers or global environmental crises seem the opposite of escapism! To quote Isaac Asimov “Reality is a crutch for people who can’t handle science fiction.”

OK, you get it. As a guy trying to predict the future, you can see how I might prefer fiction, and certain kinds of fiction. Given that the Baroque Cycle is set in the period 1660-1715, how could that possibly help me in my work?

Refresher: Yes, I took calculus in 1982-1984; and studied a fair bit about encryption in 1988-1989. But that’s a LOOONG time ago. So reading a book that covers the invention of the calculus by Newton and/or Leibniz, how it was developed, and what it meant for the world of science (or Natural Philosophy, as it was then known) is hugely helpful for me. Various characters in the book use cryptography, keys both public and private, and even the problems around factoring large numbers into their primes. All of this is relevant to public key encryption and security today. I could go read textbooks on these subjects, but Stephenson’s description of how Newton arrived at the concept of ‘fluxions’ and ‘fluences’  by following the banks of the Cam will stick with me much longer than any text will!


The nature of money: The Baroque period was a complicated time for money. What did it really mean? Did it have to be a precious metal, like gold, or silver? Did it have to be “coined” and have the imprint of a king on it? What happened when governments added base metals to the mix? (This is where we get the term ‘debasing currency.”) Lyon and Leipzig were leading the way in moving large parts of money around on pieces of paper: how did that work in the early days? What happened when the precious metal supply was interrupted, and the currency supply became fixed? All of these questions are relevant in 2014, with the concepts of Bitcoins and other blockchain currencies forcing us to examine what we mean by currency and money. Are they a store of value? A medium of exchange? What roles do trust and volatility play? What effects does fixing the money supply have?

Bitcoin seems like high tech today, and making coins seems low tech. But – at the time – who did the UK get to run their Mint, and revive the moribund economy? Isaac Newton was the greatest scientist of his time (and possibly ever!), and was Master of the Royal Mint for 30 years.

Queen Anne’s Veto: My knowledge of this period of British history was less than perfect. And by ‘less than perfect’ I mean that I remember that there was someone named Queen Anne, but I had forgotten whether she came before or after William and Mary! So I was reading the Wikipedia article on Anne, and came across something: she withheld Royal Assent of the Scotch Militia Bill on 1 May, 1707. Having the British monarch veto a bill passed by both Houses of Parliament was rare, but not uncommon: King William had done it seven times. But Anne’s veto was the last time it ever happened: Royal Assent has not been withheld in 307 years and counting.

Our world is filled with many things that seem permanent. Sometimes technological, or sometimes cultural. When I was growing up, some homes had intercoms so that people on different floors could talk to each other: seems kind of silly in a world of smartphones!


On TV shows, women weren’t allowed to be pregnant, and even newlyweds like Rob and Laura Petrie on the Dick van Dyke Show had to sleep in twin beds. Then one day, nobody ever did that again, and sleeping in a double bed was just the new normal.


In 2014, is there anything we will see happen for the last time ever? A device or behaviour that seems completely normal today, but a decade (or century) from now we will look back and ask ourselves what we were thinking?

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