Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Snoop by Sam Gosling (Book Review)

Snoop is a fascinating and readable exploration of what personal items reveal about an individual's personality. Everything from what's on your iPod playlist to how your office is organized to how you dress for interviews illuminate who you are and how you behave.

The book emerged from serious academic study and experiments, but author Sam Gosling has massaged the material for a general audience. For the most part, he succeeds, and if you enjoy Malcolm Gladwell's books and Freakonomics, you'll probably like Snoop as well.

Monday, September 28, 2009

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O'Farrel (Book Review)

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox is a sad, eloquent novel about Iris Lockhart, a young Scottish woman who learns suddenly that she's been granted the power of attorney for a family relation she never knew existed -- a great aunt (Esme Lennox) who has been in a mental institution for the past 60 years.

With this solid nouveau-Gothic premise, the novel proceeds by switching back and forth in time and alternating narrative points of view, between Iris and Esme. The story of both women is thus gradually revealed, and the ending, whether or not the reader guesses at the big surprise, is dramatic and powerful.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Shop Class as Soulcraft by Matthew B. Crawford (Book Review)

Shop Class as Soulcraft explores the value of manual competence and the rewards of working in the trades versus working as a professional or knowedge worker. From this point of departure, author and motorcycle repair-shop owner Matthew B. Crawford tackles a number of thought-provoking and culturally immediate questions.

For example, is there a general under-estimation and under-appeciation of the intellectual rigor and challenges in the manual trades? Are some of the manual trades immune to outsourcing and should they be worthy of new consideration for otherwise college-eligible grads in the evolving world of outsourcing? Is there deeper personal and communal satisfaction in standards that -- in the trades -- are inherent in the work itself compared to more abstract measures of competence in other professional fields?

These are hard questions worthy of deep conversations and analysis. To that end, I'm very pleased that Crawford made the attempt.

As for the execution, though, I thought he hit it hard and long, but foul. The book was too uneven as the author traversed many different topics related to manual competence and the trades. In some cases, I wanted him to linger longer over a thread (as with trades and the new economy of outsourcing). In others, I felt he went into too much technical detail to fill in a chapter. Perhaps this is because the book was extended from an original essay. Finally, I think the ideas in this book would have appealed tremendously to a general audience, but for academic language and style that will surely turn some readers away.

Recommended for the trenchant ideas, but note the criticisms above, and definitely steer clear if you don't like academic prose.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Expandable Blog Posts in Blogger - Now Part of Blogger as Jump Breaks

I previously posted about how to implement expandable posts in Blogger -- that is a summary lead-in on the main page (instead of the whole post) and a link to the the rest of the post on a separate page.

Well, I guess enough people were interested in this functionality that Blogger decided to add it as a standard feature, called Jump Breaks:

With Jump Breaks you can show just a snippet of your post on your blog's index page. Blogger will insert a "Read more" link to the full post page where your readers can keep reading.

Check out the full post about Jump Breaks from the Blogger Buzz blog.

Monday, September 07, 2009

The Big Necessity by Rose George (Book Review)

The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters is all about human waste, but it's not a gross out or uncouth book. Instead, this is a very interesting and accessible survey of the state of human waste disposal across the world, with analysis of some of the long-standing social and environmental challenges that are involved.

One of the major points author Rose George emphasizes is that poor sanitation is a huge problem in many parts of the world. Simply, poor santiation leads to contaminated food and dirty drinking water that, in turns, leads to disease and the deaths of millions of people each year (many children, often from dysentery).

Friday, September 04, 2009

Fierce Conversations by Susan Scott (Book Review)

One of the advantages of having a wife pursue a graduate degree is that you can pick the interesting books to read from her pile of assigned books while bypassing the rest.

When I noticed my wife reading Fierce Conversations, I was immediately interested. The text purported to summarize author and seasoned facilitator Susan Scott's methods and best practices in helping communicate more effectively, including breaking through on tough, seemingly intractable issues. While Fierce Conversations has clearly been marketed as a business book for managers and executives, it seemed to me that at root it was about communication, and, if its message was sound, could be useful to anyone.

After reading the book, I would recommend it to anyone, or at least anyone wishing to communicate and listen better. Because, in essence, Fierce Conversations is about returning to authentic conversations and really listening and giving people your full attention while communicating. It seems so simple, but, as Scott demonstrates through numerous examples, many people struggle communicating: they talk over people, or they fear undiscussables, or they don't really listen.

Scott shows the way forward first by emphasizing the need to be in the conversation and listen fully. Then she demonstrates useful models to consider using, such as the Mineral Rights model that starts with an identification of the most pressing issue and ends with a commitment to action. She also provides many practical exercises to foster better conversations.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

This Land Is Their Land by Barbara Ehrenreich (Book Review)

This Land Is Their Land: Reports from a Divided Nation is a part-Swiftian and part-muckracking collection of vignettes about various specific topics affecting many Americans -- healthcare, inflation, unemployment, corporate greed and malfeasance -- that, in aggregate, all show how the gap is widening between the rich and the poor.

Of course, like many books that take a stand about political or social issues, many readers will come to it with strong opinions and those predisposed to agree with Ehrenreich will probably like and praise the book more than those who don't.

Political leanings aside, I thought the humor and angry in the book were well placed, and the pieces were deftly calibrated in length, tone, and to effect.

Overall it was good to read Ehrenreich back in full stride. Previously, I liked Nickel and Dimed a lot but was disappointed by Bait and Switch.

One caveat: the book was published in 2008 and feels just a little dated, in the wake of the recession and housing collapse. Not to say that the economic downturn has erased the gap between the rich and the poor, but I wonder if there's been any effect, especially among those whose fortunes depended on a robust housing bubble.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Wee Bit Computers

I don't usually makes plugs here, but I wanted to acknowledge the excellent service I received from Wee Bit Computers, a computer fix-it and software installation shop located just south of Buffalo, NY.

About a month ago, I was on my computer one night when I heard the tell-tale sign that one of my hard drives was failing. The next day I phoned Roger Carron, the owner of Wee Bit Computers, and after talking to him for just a little bit, I knew my computer would be in good hands.

The next day someone came to pick up my machine, and the faulty hardware was replaced and the machines was returned to me on the very same day. What's better, the price for the repair was entirely reasonable. I was very happy with the service.

I definitely recommend Wee Bit Computers to anyone in Buffalo or the surrounding area with computer needs. Thanks also to my friend Gary for recommending Roger.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Indignation by Philip Roth (Book Review)

Prior to reading Indignation, my only exposure to Philip Roth was his classic Portnoy's Complaint -- which I strongly disliked (although I conceded that the novel is distinguished in breaking new ground for confessional prose).

I ended up reading Indignation by accident. I belong to the Quality Paperback Book Club and the book came to me because I forgot to decline off one of those monthly e-cards where you receive the books if you don't tell them you don't want them.

As it turned out, I thought Indignation was a tight, readable literary novel. The text is narrated by a young man -- apparently from the afterlife -- who recounts his confrontational relationships with male figures (father, fellow students, teachers) and his sexual awakening at college. It was good, not great, and engaging enough to make me consider reading some of Roth's other books.