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There are books that inspire. There are also people who inspire. This review is about a book that inspired a person who inspires. It also inspired that person to write a book to inspire people.

I’ve been following Simon Sinek for a bit now. For the past few years he’s been speaking about a way of looking at things that differs from the common view. He’s also written a book (releasing in October 2019) about it titled, “The Infinite Game.” This review isn’t about Simon, his videos, or upcoming book. It’s about the book that inspired him.

That book, by James Carse, is Finite and Infinite Games.

Unlike many of my recent reads, this one was a bit on the compact side, coming in at under 150 pages. The interesting thing to me approaching the book was how such a short volume had inspired Sinek to take its concept on the road.

In typical university professor process, Carse opens by describing the endpoints of a spectrum, games of a finite and infinite nature. He asserts these to be just that, endpoints. We are left to conclude that there are other games within the spectrum, but none are explored. Although this would have allowed for a larger volume, there really isn’t much point. If you’re the kind of person who buys this book and doesn’t appreciate that it’s been written by a philosophical / political / historical viewpoint, the additional material wouldn’t have enabled you to get any more out of it. On the other hand, if you do, you’ll have little difficultly extrapolating the spectrum and its related historical and political examples.

Once the groundwork is laid, the author spends a chapter exploring a seemingly obvious point. “No one can play a game alone.” This appeals to our sense of self. We exist in relationship to the not-self. We cluster our selves into communities in relationship to other communities and nation-states likewise.

From here, the book explores our traditional view of games. Winners and losers. We see how this binary / hierarchical viewpoint demands the existence of a time-bound context (world). For Whovians this represents a fixed point in time. Examples would be the 1962 United States World Series (baseball) champion or the victors of a battle. The interesting element of which is that of any fixed point in time, it never changes. It is never different. It also never improves. Implicit in this view is the requirement of losers as well as accepted, well-defined rules.

In the broader world we see analogs to zero sum games. We see companies constantly defining themselves in terms of being the number one firm in something contextualized by a specific time period. These tend toward ever increasingly pointless hair splitting. The question becomes, “to what end?”

An interesting point, which I’d not previously considered, was that finite games require an audience. That is witnesses. These serve to validate the victor and their victory. They also are responsible for carrying the memory of the event, anchoring it in time.

It is only now, two thirds of the way into the book, that the other end of the spectrum is examined. To do so, the author has us look to nature (well actually anything not contrived by human beings).

As one might have come to conclude, the world (and by extension universe) got along just fine without us and will probably to do again. Carse points out that in and of itself, the world has no narrative structure, it simply is. In the same way an infinite games is the complete opposite of a finite game. It has no fixed rules, no audience, no winners, no losers and is not time bounded.

So what is the point of an infinite game?

To keep playing.

Players come and go. Objectives change. But, at the end of the day, playing is its own motivation. In this view of the world, there are no enemies to be defeated, there are rivals to out do. Without rivals (other players) you aren’t playing a game. There is no attempt to reach a pinnacle, but rather to be pushed to exceed ones own success.

In a finite game you declare victory. Once at the top of the heap, it’s all down hill. Finite games are by their very nature self-limiting. There is no incentive to excel once you’ve attained supremacy. We have seen time-and-again companies creating new and innovative technologies only to hold them back because they were already number one. These same companies lost that position to others not held back by past glories.

I have seem many times how in the software world, companies have milked the “completed” product cow while at the same time refusing to invest in keeping that same cow current in terms of technology. It is only after decades of neglect that they realize that they can no longer add features and that a generation or two of graduates have passed by since anyone was taught how to work with the technologies used in said cash cow. And then the cow dies.

T.S. Elliot said, “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; …” Pablo Picasso said, When there’s anything to steal, I steal” Steve Jobs spoke likewise. These are views of those constantly improving their craft. Learning from and incorporating the best we see in others vs. simply attempting to exploit the weaknesses we see is a hallmark of the infinite game player. The other players of their infinite games are not opponents but rather rivals. Opponents seek our defeat. Rivals seek our respect. Opponents want their fixed point in time. Rivals desire that every day we push them to be their best.

Not long ago, someone said to me, “unicorns want to be around other unicorns.” According to Guy Kawasaki, Steve Jobs said, “A players hire A players; B players hire C players; and C players hire D players. It doesn’t take long to get to Z players. This trickle-down effect causes bozo explosions in companies.” I prefer Eric Dietrich’s thought, “A Players Don’t Hire A Players — They Partner with A Players.”  We can look to the rise and fall of stack ranking in the technology world to see the negative impact of the finite game in a world where the goal is to create the future.

Upon finishing the book I was left with a sense of affirmation and sadness. I recommend this book to anyone who intends to undertake any endeavor over the long term.

 

 

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A clever blog post title is a wonderful thing. What’s interesting is that I couldn’t improve on Adam Grant‘s book “Originals” title. In my previous post, I said that that book wasn’t for the individual looking for themselves. This one is, kind of.

The book begins with a quote from George Bernard Shaw,

The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.

or as Max Planck said,

New scientific ideas never spring from a communal body, however organized, but rather from the head of an individually inspired researcher who struggles with his problems in lonely thought and unites all his thought on one single point which is his whole world for the moment.

Thats’s it. 250 pages and a slew of references.

To be fair, to leave things there would trivialize the book.

There is an odd sense of wandering I got from this book. At one moment, it speaks to those who seek out the creatives. This felt like an art collector was speaking. At another, it focuses on the hardships of being a creative. Just when you think you’ve got a sense of that, there’s a shift to the economics of utilizing creatives and then thrust into the environment which produced them.

All of these chapters could have been the basis of books in their own right. At the end of the book I had the sense that I’d read a primer on the human equivalent of livestock breeding of prized but temperamental Mishima cattle.

I would recommend this book to technology leaders as a reminder of how the world advances (not improves, mind you, but advances) and how to leverage the creatives. I also recommend this book to those who swim against the current. Appreciate that creatives are looked upon by many as a rare resource to be cultivated and value-extracted. Know that although most people will never understand that drives you, these people server to keep us growing.

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It’s been quite some time since my previous book review. As a result, I have a stack of books to review. Ironically, the first book is “The Motivation Myth” by Jeff Haden.

I always felt bad for Luke Skywalker when it came to his Jedi training from Yoda. “Do or do not, there is no try.” How is someone “too old to begin the training” expected to unpack that? As someone whose spent the better part of 40 years either learning about, implementing or teaching others how to do bleeding edge tech, I get the “shove them out of their comfort zone” thing. That being said, I also know that when dealing with creatures who learn by metaphor that you can’t expect someone to suddenly jump from 2D to 3D and be effective or even successful.

This book is a gentle reflection on why the concept of motivation (perhaps a better word would have been inspiration) has limited application in the sphere of accomplishment.

Each chapter is leads the reader confront a different myth regarding task success. It’s not some stoke-able flame, lighted path, aspirational mumbo-jumbo, or guru-led excursion through the swamp that accomplished tasks through you. It’s you, your hard work and preparation. Seneca the Younger said, “luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” Success is what happens when preparation meets execution.

At the end of the day, this book will benefit those who lack the mentors in their life to kick them in the ass every now and again. Self-doubt is inevitable, but action paralysis is not. Plan the work. Work the plan. Or as Gene Krantz (Failure is Not an Option) would say “work the problem.” Prepare, plan, execute, repeat.

Should you read this book? If you lead or mentor others, yes. It serves as a reminder that in a world of warm fuzzies, people have by-and-large come to expect success to come from outside themselves. We need to have high expectations for ourselves and others. If you are expecting that this book will make you as an individual successful, look elsewhere.

 

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The book Creative Selection by Ken Kocienda was recommended to me. This is unusual in that I’m typically the one recommending books to others.

This book follows the creation of the iPhone as seen through the eyes of the author, who was a software developer at Apple at the time. There are many interesting aspects to his story, to his interactions with the movers and shakers within Apple including eventually with Steve Jobs, and to the creative dynamic that made the iPhone possible at all.

Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to participate in the world of Apple’s alpha and beta hardware, as well as that of many other technology firms as an engineer at firms working with Apple. I’ve also been on the other side of the fence, designing, developing and managing hardware and software, and their associated beta programs. It’s a challenging environment.

I’ve also had the opportunity of presenting my work to those holding the levers of power who had, shall we say, a less than gentle manner of showing disapproval with those thing not meeting with their standard of quality. There is an interesting combination of exhilaration and dread surrounding such presentations.

Elaborating on the details of the book in this post wouldn’t serve to encourage the would-be reader. If you are a follower of the history of Apple or technology, you’ll find things that will expand your view of the period and the dynamics surrounding it. You should also come away with a bit of insight into how Jobs looked at features. At least within the scope of the work that Kocienda presented him.

As a first outing, Kocienda does a reasonable job of painting a picture of the time and place that was Apple before they changed the world of mobile phones. The book is illustrated, which is unusual in a day and age of contemporaneous photography. I can’t imagine there not being numerous of photos from the proto-iPhone during its gestation. The pace of the book is decent and he conveys a sense of presence in the narrative. I felt that it could have been tighter, although that would have reduced the already roughly 200 pages of prose even further.

All-in-all, the book is well supported by references and is approachable by those not of the software tribe. You should be able to dispatch this one in a few hours. It’ll be joining my other volumes on the history of technology of this period.

 

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I always find myself impressed at how nation-states and their leaders exhibit repeating patterns of behavior. This is expertly explored through space, time and scale in John Lewis Gaddis‘ latest book On Grand Strategy.

Dovetailing beautifully into my previous post’s assertion that I am an experiential gestaltist, Gaddis’ work takes us from Persia to Greece, China, Spain, England, France, Russia and the Americas. The book deconstructs battles and their attendant strategies, the motivations of their commanders, and the moods of the peoples involved.

From the outset, Gaddis presents us with the metaphor he will return to time and again. That of the fox and the hedgehog. These represent the approaches of alert outward-directed probing with stealth and of unwavering belief and inward-directed defense of that belief.

He shows that time and again battles are lost because leaders lack the ability to see changes in the situation before them. This may manifest in populations simply abandoning territory as was the case in both Xercesattack of Athens and Napoleon‘s of Moscow. Forcing your attacker to extend their supply lines should give pause to any commander, and yet, time after time we see overconfidence leading to defeat.

We see how Elizabeth skillfully balances force and guile to turn a seemingly weak position with respect to the attacking forces of Spain’s (God will make it work out) Philip. Like Xerces, Philip believes that his forces cannot fail. Less so because of their intrinsic numerical advantage and more because of his steadfast belief in his divine mission. His confidence extended to failing to provide adequate direction to his various forces and ignoring losses due to bad weather. Elizabeth, on the other hand patiently and judiciously used her limited resources.

The British colonies in North America are examined and we see the interplay between the colonials and the empire. As the United States are forming, the choice to kick the can of addressing slavery down the proverbial road of history is in full display as they draft their Declaration of Independence and Constitution. We jump to the American Civil War where leaders are struggling with the consequences of being at once a nation based on democratic ideals and yet built on slavery. They were very well aware that the monarchies of Europe still looked on them as an untenable aberration. A hypocritical one at that.

And we see into the churn that formed the backdrops of both World Wars. Also, how England worked to engage the United States and how others tried to prevent its engagement.

Throughout it all, we are presented profiles of leaders who are either able or unable to navigate the ambiguities of the realities before them. There are those without a compass, unable to achieve goals because there are none. There are those whose compass is trusted to the exclusion of the terrain. They find themselves, like those today blinding following navigation apps, ending up going off cliffs and ending up in lakes. Knowing where you are going is important, but if you fail to allow for the terrain and weather conditions, you will not do well.

On the whole, the book provides us a valuable mirror. It is amazingly timely given that we are in a period where our leaders seem again poised to engage in actions demonstrating that they have failed to either study of learn from the teaching of Sun Tzu, Thucydides, Augustine and Machiavelli. Their message could be described as success is found in following the middle way, embracing both certainty of mission, preparation and proper respect for the fluid nature of engagement.

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I’ve just completed Robert Wright‘s latest book, Why Buddhism Is True. For me, the attraction was the subtitle: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment.

Reviewing a book on philosophy is like trying to explain your existential motivations to a dolphin. You know that they’re really smart, but you’re never really sure that they get anything out of the discourse. That being said, I present my attempt. Hopefully, it will be minimally head-tilt inducing.

By way of background, I count myself among the Buddhist community. This to me provides about as much information as if I’d said that I work with computers. Yup, me and a hundred of million others work with computers. It tells you nothing about the form, function, depth of involvement, etc. Hence my choice of the word community. There is no single locus within Buddhism. Even whether it is a religion, a philosophy, or both is a point of discussion. On this, I point back to the sub-title’s attraction to me.

The reason I can even attempt a review is that the book takes a practical (as in practice) view of the topic. As an engineer, I appreciate the quantifiable. On this point, the book does not disappoint.

If I had to re-title the book I would name it Meditation: What’s in it for Me? Why? Because in a world where people barely make it past headlines, it pretty much covers the core of the discussion. The problem with this title is that it leaves out all the interesting bits that get you from introduction to summary. Sort of like renaming Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure to “be excellent to each other.”

The author is journalist, professor of Philosophy, and is of the Theravāda (specifically Vipassanā) school of Buddhism. I follow the Mahayana (specifically Zen) school. For the requisite pun, you could say that the distinction between the two is all or nothing.

Let me say up front that I am not a Buddhist scholar. I can’t read Sanskrit, Pali, or even Kanji to save my life. As such, many of the names and terms-of-art within the Buddhist world make my brain hurt. I can’t pronounce them. I can’t remember them. But I’ve gotten to the point where I recognize them in context. As an experiential gestaltist, I strive to integrate everything. In the process, the source wrapper is often discarded. This book accomplishes that unwrapping and, although it does use the terms from the source languages (mercifully translated), presented in approachable language.

Using this approach of going from the known to the unknown, Wright covers the methodological process of meditation and its effects as he has experienced them. He also relates the Buddhist underpinnings of the whys and wherefores of meditation as seen by various schools.

Next, he explores the various working models of consciousness used within the psychological community. From there he harmonizes the two.

In the final chapters, he brings us back to the big question areas of universality and enlightenment. He finishes by answering the question as to the tangible worth of meditation and will being at one leads to a grey existence.

I won’t spoil the ending for those of you who like to see endings for themselves. If you have an interest in the interplay between meditation, psychology and Buddhist thought, you will find this to be an interesting read.

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Sometimes you can spend years trying to find a book that you can recommend to someone who’s asked you a question. My latest read, The Software Craftsman: Professionalism, Pragmatism, Pride is one such book. A recent volume in the Robert C. Martin book series, this volume by Sandro Mancuso is not what it appears to be. And that, is a good thing.

When you look at the other books in the Martin series (Working Effectively with Legacy Code, Agile Estimating and Planning, Clean Code, The Clean Coder, Clean Architecture, …) you see topics decomposed and methodologies expressed by which the title’s subject is achieved. That’s not what you get with The Software Craftsman. In my case, that was a very fortunate turn of events.

This is not to say that the journey of the software craftsman is not discussed. It is and in a reasonable amount of detail. But an equal amount of time is given to the ecosystem within which the craftsman practices. These parts of the book are not for the consumption of the craftsman or aspirant, but for the owners of the firms who employ (or should employ) them.

The book does well in describing the trials and tribulations of a member of the craft; from the point where they realized that they aspired to more than the dichotomy of coder / architect; to the creation of the volume itself. It lays bare this false dichotomy within the broader context of the entire point of software development. That being to produce value to the customer and income to the creator. Within that context, there is the easy path of whatever works and the hard path of building a thing that no only does what it is supposed to, but does it in a way which is both high quality and highly maintainable.

At it’s core, this is book about philosophy. In a landscape of Google and go; and compile it, link it, ship it, debug it; this is a thoughtful volume. It makes the point that I’ve never seen in print, that the individual software developer is responsible for their own career development. Not their manager, not their company, but they themselves are responsible. Heady stuff this.

As to the remainder of the book’s material, it’s more a wake up call to upper management. There you’ll find discussion of recruiting, hiring, retaining, shaping change and showing ROI. I know of very few who could look at this volume and come away unmoved.

It might be the separation of authority and responsibility, the hire for what we needed yesterday, the CYA so we get our bonus, or the factory worker mentality encouraged by so many firms today. If you can read this book and not get something out of it, you’re part of the problem.

Truly quality software is designed, built, and tested by passionate individuals working together toward the creation of something which will well serve the customer. Everything else is just code. Any 10 year-old can be taught to write code. I know, I’ve done it. Do you want your life’s critical systems to be build by 10 year-olds? Of course not, that’s a ridiculous question. How about people who are just doing it because they make a better than average day’s wage?

I hope you’re intrigued. At the very least, I hope you’ll reflect on your own views of the responsibilities of a software developer. At fewer than 250 pages, you can read this book in one or two sittings, but reading the book is only the starting point.

 

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The book, The Character of a Leader: A Handbook for the Young Leader, is an odd beast. There aren’t many non-fiction books I’ve read where the author uses a nom de plume. According to the Amazon description the author Donald Alexander is an executive officer within the United States intelligence community. Presuming this to be true, they’re desire is to provide a foundation for aspiring leaders and not their own aggrandizement. I say aspiring here because a leader isn’t a title or rank, but rather a state or behavioral characteristic. Leaders can at the same time be led. They are also in a constant state of self-education.

The author argues that a leader is grounded in a set of core characteristics and beliefs about themselves and others. This position is opposed to those who believe that one can be an effective leader and hold that there are no absolutes with regard to attitudes and actions (moral relativism).

Given the books short length (about 120 pages of main text), it struck me as unusual that the introduction was about 15 pages in length. Why not simply incorporate it into the body of the work? My view is that this device allows the author to create the questions that the main text then answers. In a way, it is as though a student approaches a teacher and in asking questions inspires the teacher to assemble a lesson for all their students. I look at it this way because that’s what I have done in similar circumstances. It’s not usually the case that people coming to me with questions realize that their questions are of import to others, but it is the obligation of those of us who people approach with such questions to “spread the wealth.” Noblesse oblige, if you will.

The book is divided into sections defining a working definition of leadership, leadership and character, leadership traits, expectations, becoming a leader, and the fundamental obstacle  to leading (tribalism). It concluded with a call for leading with integrity.

No one who has been in a position of leadership will be surprised at either the structure of brevity of this book. You could put the totality of the facts conveyed onto a business card (I’d’ve said index card, but no one knows what an index card is anymore). But just like a PowerPoint, you don’t need to write every word you’ll speak on the slides (they’re not really slides anymore either). This book is a touchstone. For those newly recognized leaders, this book is a cross between a travelogue and a cautionary tale. For the former, the inclusion of additional material would simply be superfluous. For the later, it might convey the idea that the actions of a leader are paint-by-number, whereas in reality the are very much free-hand.

There are numerous quotes by and about leaders from various periods in history. These both build the case for the author’s assertion that character is essential to being a leader and provide jumping off points for further exploration of specific aspects of leadership.

I am impressed at the tightness of the narrative and the compelling argument made by the author. They strike me as one of those individuals that I would very much enjoy learning from and working along side.

 

 

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I spend much of my time these days doing long-term strategic research and planning. Part of that time is spent identifying areas where technology training is warranted. The ways and means I use to create and present training materials have been developed through years of trial and error. In the midst of one particular line of research into a non-training-related area, I found Building an Innovative Learning Organization by Russell Sarder.

The book is relatively short, about 220 pages, but in many ways, you really don’t need more than that to cover the concepts of training. While it’s true that it would take far more to cover all aspect of training, from organization by-in, to facilities, to choice of materials, to length of courses, etc., those are details. And the details are as pointless as ornaments without a tree if you don’t have the fundamentals in place. That’s where this book shines.

Yes, there are all the requisite elements of a business-oriented book (voices from industry, outcomes of research, anecdotes, and the like). Not to mention the mound of acronyms tossed in for good measure. But, I expect those. This book asserts that learning should be a systemic attribute of any thriving company. As such, learning must be part of the culture of the company for it to be successful. You cannot slap training on the side and expect that you will have any serious ROI to the company. It would be like thinking that buying Girl Scout cookies or Boy Scout popcorn has a substantive impact on the members of either organization. Yes, it does provide financial support for programs, but it’s not “the program.”

Training needs leaders, resources, people interested in learning, and a purpose (lest we forget why we do training in the first place).

Training has a structure and that structure is not one-size-fits-all. People have varying modalities of learning. Even the best material won’t work well for everyone. This is were that whole (materials, time, place, etc.) details thing comes into play. But, again the focus of the book is to lay out the challenges and considerations, not specifics.

Finally, you need to see that training produces results. This can be fiendishly difficult to measure, so it’s vitally important to set expectations before doing the training. Being happy is not considered a valid measure of ROI for the company.

As mentioned earlier, the book is replete with references and for those who create training material or even those who want to create an environment within their company where can be effective. It is a good starting point. For those who have been involved in training for some time, the book can serve as a reference that can be used to educate management in the scope, cost and investment (they’re different) necessary to create a learning environment that will have long-term benefits.

Overall, a decent read. I found the interviews with CLOs (chief learning officers) incisive. As with all organization-level things, there are no easy answers. And you do get what you pay for. You’ll dispatch this book in a few hours and then find yourself going back over it later.

 

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The latest trend seems to be reading what the rich and powerful read. I regularly peruse these lists of recommendations and occasionally an interesting title catches my eye. The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert is one of those books.

For a while now this book has been in my ‘highly parallel reading queue.’ This is to say that my usual method of reading consists of a bookshelf of a hundred or so books that I’m somewhere in the midst of reading. From this bookshelf, a subset of about 20 find their way to a smaller bookshelf. These will be read randomly a chapter or so at a time until I’ve worked my way through them and have to reload from the primary bookshelf. Occasionally, as with my last reviewed book, I’ll do a cover-to-cover in a burst, but that is the exception. I’ve got some books that I’ve been reading for the better part of 30 years (75% footnote material).

Needless to say, by the time I’ve finished a book there has been a fair amount of reflection and integration that’s taken place. The material in The Sixth Extinction is fairly heavy stuff. It’s not that the science is particularly difficult or that the writing requires you to keep a tablet handy for side exploration (I love side exploration). The thing is that if you have a decent understanding of the history of the planet (so far as we have come to understand it) and appreciate the impact that man can and does have on the biosphere, then by the time you finish the book, you’ll come away with a sense of profound sadness.

I’m a fan of John Brunner‘s work. He had a way of making the large scale personal. He also had a habit of killing off all his main characters within the first ten pages of his books (yes, this is a bit of hyperbole). In many of his works there is a sense that things aren’t going to work out, but you keep pulling for the hero anyway.

The Sixth Extinction is a methodical tour of the effects of the age of man (Anthropocene epoch). It takes us around the world, unblinkingly moving from one die-off in progress to the next. It puts a face and a context to each creature we’re introduced to. If the books thirteen chapters were made into a season of television, it would be the most stunningly depressing series ever. Whereas Carl Sagan‘s Cosmos appealed to our better nature and James Burke‘s Connections left us asking if we were any more than cogs, The Sixth Extinction ends with rats inheriting the Earth.

This may all sound like a bit of a downer, but it’s one of those mirror books that is a distinct departure from all the wishing that we lived back in 1950’s America or how can we become millionaires by eating the same breakfast as Warren Buffet or Mark Zuckerberg. We need to read books that show us the big picture. Otherwise, what’s the point of it all?

Many books on bad situations leave us with a call to action. Realistically though, the damage has been done. The question is one of how long it will take for all the dominoes to fall. For the vast majority of people, asking them to look further than their tribe is near unto impossible. Asking people to consider the planet, therefore, represents an intractable problem.

Read the book, if for no other reason than to come away with a greater appreciation of the impact of man on the planet.

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