Archive for July, 2008

Book Review: Groundswell by Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff

I learned about Groundswell: Winning in a World Transformed by Social Technologies (2008) by Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff from the HBR IdeaCast Episode 91: Be a Social Technology Provocateur.  I was intrigued enough to check it out from the library that employs me but it was quickly recalled.  Luckily, I had gotten far enough to sign up for the Groundswell blog where I learned that Forrester was giving away 100 copies of the book to bloggers for review.  I was lucky enough to snag a copy and I’ve finally read it so I can fulfill my end of the bargain.

The basic gist of Groundswell is that new social networking tools allow the general public to greatly influence how companies and products are viewed by people at large.  The authors define the groundswell as “A social trend in which people use technologies to get the things they need from each other, rather than from traditional institutions like corporations,” (p. 9).  Many companies see this as a threat but the authors encourage organizations to embrace social technologies to give them competitive advantage in business.

Now I’m someone who recoils at the concept of “viral marketing” in particular and really the whole corporate-consumerist ideology in general, but what impresses me about this book is that it comes down to people.  This is not about marketers telling people what to buy, it is about engaging people and learning about what products/services would enrich their lives, how to respond to problems, and even how to influence the purchasing decisons of other customers.  One interesting notion is that while corporations have “product managers,” they rarely have “people managers” although that’s going to be necessary to continue in business in a groundswell environment.  They even make a good point that the customers, not the company, own the brand.

“Marketers tell us they define and manage brands.  Some spend millions, or hundreds of millions, of dollars on advertising.  They carefully extend brand names, putting Scope on a tube of toothpaste to see what happens.  We bought this brand, they say.  We spent on it.  We own it.

Bull.

Your brand is whatever the customers say it is.  And in the groundswell where they communicate with each other, they decide,” (p. 78).

Many executives want to join the groundswell and think it is as easy as putting a blog or comment pages on their website.  The authors warn that engaging the groundswell requires planning with particular goals in mind or one’s efforts will fail.  Groundswell is like a manual for managers that offers case studies, lessons from those cases, and how those lessons may be applied to one’s own business.

I’m obviously not a corporate executive, but I read this book from the perspective that libraries can benefit from the instruction of this book.  Like corporations, libraries would do well to listen to the ideas of their biggest supporters, respond to concerns of those having problems with the library, and engage people in making the library a better place for everyone.  I’d suggest this book be read by any librarians interested in ideas for transforming the library in the web 2.0 world.

Groundswell : winning in a world transformed by social technologies by Charlene Li. Boston, Mass. : Harvard Business Press, c2008.

Book Review: Simplexity by Jeffrey Kluger

Simplexity: Why Simple Things Become Complex (and How Complex Things Can Be Made Simple) (2008) by Jeffrey Kluger is my first foray into reviewing a Advance Reading Copy of a book by of the Library Thing Early Reviewers program.  Or maybe not since I saw this book last week in the window at Harvard Book Store.  At any rate, this is a brand new book and it’s a popular science exploration of the idea of complexity and simplicity or how simple things can more complicated than they seem, and complex things more simple.

Kluger refers to the work that’s being done in the study of complexity at places like the Santa Fe Institute.  Then he dedicates each chapter to the concept of simplexity in every day life in areas such as markets, crowd psychology, social structure, business, death, sports, fear, childhood development, liguistics, technology, public health, and the arts.  Particularly nice is his appreciation that hard-working blue color labor is overworked and underpaid. It’s hard to say whether or not Kluger sticks with his thesis, or just writes about a bunch of interesting things but either way it is a fun, breezy read that provokes thoughts and ideas.

I was struck by how many books I’ve read recently shared some basic concepts with this book.  I suppose at the very least Simplexity can be a good summary of a lot of recent literature, but better than that it can be a jumping off point to reading these other books.  Unfortunately, Simplexity does not have a bibliography (or even an index!) so here related books I’d reccomend, some of which were mentioned in the text:

Books I’ve read previously by this author:

Simplexity: Why Simple Things Become Complex (and How Complex Things Can Be Made Simple) by Jeffrey Kluger. Hyperion (2008), Hardcover, 336 pages

Boston By Foot Tour of the Month: Tory Row

Boston by Foot’s Tour of the Month took us to Cambridge and the venerable neighborhood of mansions along Brattle Street known as Tory Row.  The name is due to the number of wealthy Loyalists who either sold their houses before departing the rebellious colony or had their property seized.  Of course, Cambridge moved on so there are plenty of 19th & 20th century houses as well, not too mention Revolutionary Era houses with later modifications.  Architectural styles include Georgian, Stick Style, Shingle Style, Queen Anne, Colonial Revival, French Second Empire and other styles of the Gilded Era (I refuse to use the term Victorian to describe anything in the United States).  Architects include H.H. Richardson and Henry Van Brundt (the latter building his own house just off Brattle Street).

Online photo gallery of the tour.

Better yet are the stories of the people who lived here.  Farmers and statesmen.  The poet Longfellow and his family occupied several mansions. An American traitor and a Hessian General were both held prisoner here. A lexicgrapher and an ornithologist. Presidents Washington, T. Roosevelt, and Taft all stayed in these houses.  Elmwood was home to Vice President Elbridge Gerry, poet James Russel Lowell, and now the official residence of the President of Harvard University.

There were a lot of houses on the tour and a lot of stories so I’m sure I didn’t get everything correct.  A couple of sights worth checking out for more in-depth visits are the Longfellow National Historic Site and the Hooper-Lee-Nichols House, headquarters of the Cambridge Historical Society.  If you missed the tour, don’t fret at this tour will be offered again next season as part of the 2009 Boston By Foot Tour of the Month offerings.  A new way to get involved and getting reminders of tours is the Boston By Foot Meetup Group.  If you’re interested in the history and architecture of our fair city, sign up today.

Book Review: Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter by Mario Vargas Llosa

Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter (1977) by Mario Vargas Llosa represents Peru in my ongoing effort to read a work of fiction by an author from every nation on the Earth called Around the World for a Good Book. The supposedly autobiographical novel is told from the point of view of Marito a law student who also works producing news updates for Lima’s high-brow station, but dreams of becoming a writer.  When Marito is 18, two people come into his life and it turns his life upside down.  The first is Aunt Julia, the ex-wife of Marito’s uncle, with whom he falls in love with despite being half her age.  The other is Pedro Comacho, a work-a-holic writer of radio serials who gains great acclaim creating lurid soap operas for the more popular low-brow radio station.

Chapters of the book alternate between Marito narrating how he woos and eventually tries to marry Aunt Julia in a absurdly complex series of events (and still refers to her as “Aunt” the whole time).  If that doesn’t seem soap operish enough, the chapters in-between are the plots of Comacho’s radio serials which come across as well-constructed, gripping short stories.  Yet, as the character Comacho works his way to a nervous breakdown, the stories become more confusing with characters showing up from other stories.  Is it a masterpiece of expiremental literature or is he just going insane?

Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter is funny, sexy, and satirical.  Writers in particular are shown up for their pretension while at the same time Vargas Llosa shows the skill and effor that goes into their craft.  The novel also a nice flavor of Lima in the 1950′s.  This is an enjoyable, fun but not dumb novel that I recommend highly.

Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter (Picador Books) by Mario Vargas Llosa. Pan Books Ltd (1984), Paperback, 374 pages

Book Review: This Republic of Suffering by Drew Gilpin Faust

About 625,000 people, probably more, died as a direct result of the American Civil war from 1861-65.  Death is such an overpowering element of the Civil War that one could write a whole book just about it. This Republic of Suffering (2008) is that book, written by Drew Gilpin Faust, noted historian and now President of Harvard University.

Chapter by chapter explores an aspect of death, beginning with dying.  Religious and moral ideals of the time thought of The Good Death, but death in the war from disease and battle was rarely good.  It was even harder for many soldiers to kill based on the same religious and moral beliefs although the concepts of revenge and mission led to a greater willingness to kill as the war raged on.  Disposing of the dead became a real problem as it was difficult to properly inter the bodies of those killed among battle and troop movements.  Mass burials though loathsome became common, although there also was an uptick in the mortuary arts for preserving bodies and shipping them to surviving family members.

The survivors mourned in many ways both public and private. Many turned to faith for solace or turned away from belief in horror.  The great number of dead lead to new government practices accounting for the dead, locating and identifying bodies, and creating national cemeteries.  The numbering of the dead continued after the war growing into a large bureaucracy.  The accumulated records — the “literal weight of history” as Faust describes it — led to a collapse of two floors in Ford’s Theatre in 1893 killing 22 employees (p. 256).

This is a chilling, yet beautiful historical account of the Civil War from a unique perspective, and very thorough.  It’s definitely a recommend read for anyone interested in the American Civil War, especially those who still believe in the glory of war.

Favorite Passages

Focusing on dying rather than killing enabled soldiers to mitigate their terrible responsibility for the slaughter of others.  As men saw themselves mirrored in the faces of those expiring around them, they struggled to come to terms with the possibility and the significance of their own annihilation.  Dying assumed clear preeminence over killing in the soldier’s construction of his emotional and moral universe.  – p.6

The establishment of national and Confederate cemeteries created the Civil War Dead as a category, as a collective that represented something more and something different from the many thousands of individual deaths that it comprised.  It also separated the Dead from the memories of living individuals mourning their own very particular losses.  The Civil War Dead became both powerful and immortal, no longer individual men but instead a force that would shape American public life for at least a century to come.  The reburial movement created a constituency of the slain, insistent in both it existence and its silence, men whose very absence from American life made them a presence that could not be ignored. – p. 249

Faust, Drew Gilpin.
This republic of suffering : death and the American Civil War / Drew Gilpin Faust.
New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 2008.
346 p. : ill. ; 25 cm

Book Review: The Declaration of Independence: A Global History by David Armitage

The Declaration of Independence: A Global History (2007) by David Armitage takes a different approach to studying the Declaration of Independence of the United States by showing how it’s been received around the world and how it’s affected history and politics globally since it’s publication.  Even Americans need a review of what exactly the Declaration of Independence is, and Armitage sums it up in three parts: 1) a statement of the world of independency of the American states, 2) a summary of the offenses by the King of Great Britain that lead to this break, and 3) a statement of political philosopy on the rights of human beings.

Modern Americans remember the Declaration for the latter, but is the first two parts that were important at the time.  Governments around the world had to decide whether to recognize the United States and for many declaring independence was not enough, but force of arms prevailed on opinions.  Others attacked the notions of the rights of men in the Declaration, most notably Jeremy Bentham whose interesting questions regarding how something can’t be self-evident just because one says so is included in a complete republication in the book’s appendix.

The Declaration would also influence the independency of future nations with a declaration of independence an important part in their creation whether the country was born in revolution or peacefully ceded.  These often cribbed words and structure straight from the US Declaration, most strikingly in the 1945 Declaration of Independence of the Democratic Republic of Viet Nam written by Ho Chi Minh.  Other declarations are different in their goals.  Armitage makes the comparison of how the US Declaration speaks of continued friendship with British bretheren, while the Haitian Declaration makes a point of stating eternal hatred to the French.  Perhaps that’s the effect of really being enslaved instead of using slavery as a political analogy.

Armitage has written an interesting book from an unique perspective.  It’s a quick read even if at times it appears to be a doctoral thesis or maybe a long research paper.  The appendix includes a number of worldwide Declarations of Independence in their full-text from 1776 to the present day.

Armitage, David, 1965-
The declaration of independence : a global history / David Armitage.
Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press, 2007.
vi, 300 p. ; 19 cm

Book Review: Bleak House by Charles Dickens

I don’t know what it is with me and Charles Dickens.  I read a book by Dickens and while my eyes scan the words and my fingers turn the pages, my brain comprehends nothing.  In the eyes and out the ears!  In college I was assigned to read Hard Times for two different classes, and I never finished it either time.  This may not sound unusual for your typical college student, but I was a geeky college student who read every book cover-to-cover.

This is not a criticism of Dickens.  It’s not him, it’s me.  To make it worse, all my book-reading friends love Dickens. The love his language, they love his descriptions, they love his brilliant satire and witty humor, they love the funny names that tell you something about the character.  I just don’t get any of it.  It makes me sad

Reading Bleak House (1853) by Charles Dickens didn’t help my Dickens Problem.  It is a book of great girth with approximately 50,000 characters, give or take a thousand.  The main story is about an endless Chancery law case and an orphan who discovers her mother and people falling in love and getting married and some skullduggery and silly people and a murder! Side-stories offer vignettes of people ranging from the aristocracy to the most destistute so that the novel sums up the entirety of life in mid-Nineteenth century London. I had to peak at Cliff Notes to get that much.

Obviously, I didn’t pick this book for myself, it’s the W&M Boston Alumni Chapter book club selection for June (& July).  The worst part is that I won’t even be able to attend the meeting.

Anyhow, Dickens’ fans can have it against me in the comments.  I deserve it!

Movie Round-Up

The Science of Sleep (2006)

A young man named Stephane lives in his dreams, vividly animated in the film and produced from a cardboard tv studio that represents his dreaming mind.  In waking life, he’s drawn to France from his native Mexico on a promise from his mother of a good job, which proves to be false.  Stephane meets and falls in love with his neighbor Stephanie and they have a long, awkward courtship.  I like this film visually as the dreams are very clever, but the story just didn’t click with me.  It appears the filmmakers are trying too hard to make connections between dreams and life and it just doesn’t work out.  This movie gets a comme si comme sa from me.

Harold and Maude (1971)

Harold is a teenager who for fun fakes suicides and attends the funerals of strangers.  Maude is a septuagenarian free spirit and reckless driver, and seemingly the only person who can understand Harold.  They meet and fall in love for a whirlwind romance but not really in any way you’d expect.  This movie is wonderfully quirky and funny.  It also felt somewhat timeless as if it were made now and not 35-years ago, yet I can’t imagine anyone making a film like this today.

Desk Set (1957)

Katherine Hepburn plays a smart and sassy reference librarian for a television network.  Spencer Tracy is the computer engineer installing the computer that may replace her.  I’ve seen gaggles of Hepburn films before but this is the first time I’ve managed to see one with Tracy. The things I learned from this movie: 1.  People have been trying to replace librarians with computers for at least 50 years.  2. Librarians always win.  3.  Office Christmas parties were MUCH more fun in the 1950′s.  4. Spencer Tracy is really funny.    Not in the movie, but worth knowing is that Hepburn’s sister Peg was a librarian for decades at a Connecticut library.

Stranger than Fiction (2006)

This is the sweet story of Harold Crick (Will Ferrell), an IRS agent leading a mundane life who suddenly hears the narration of a novel in his head.  Worse, this story of his life foreshadows his imminent death.  Not finding help from a psychiatrist, Harold gets help from a literary critic (Dustin Hoffman) before eventually finding the author of the book (Emma Thompson).  Harold also finds live with an anti-establishment baker (played by the always easy on the eyes Maggie Gyllenhaal).  Ferrel does a pretty good job as a leading man especially when he has to share the screen with a pair of legendary actors in supporting roles.

There Will Be Blood (2007)

Daniel Day-Lewis plays Daniel Plainview an ambitious oil prospector in the California of the early 1900′s who over the course of the film descends falls into the grip of greed and misanthropy.  He appears to be principled early on but perhaps events in the film just draw out his true self.  Most heartbreaking is his treatment of his adopted son H.W. (Dillon Freasier) who I’m certain he once truly loved, but eventually will mock and abandon him.  Apart from excellent acting, this film is rather stunning in it’s cinematography and insane musical score.  There are a lot of scenes where there’s drama simply in stillness and quietness.  The final scene is a bit over the top though.

Book Review: In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto by Michael Pollan

In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto (2008) is Michael Pollan‘s follow-up to The Omnivore’s Dilemma, in which he answers the question the most readers of that earlier book have when finished “Ok, so what should I eat?”

Pollan’s simple answer is: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”  A simple phrase, but it requires this slim book to explicate, especially in this era where the prominence of processed food products make it difficult to determine what food is.  A good portion of the book is a set of rules for identifying foods and how to enjoy them.  I’ve listed the rules below for my own memory, but it is important to read the book for Pollan’s explication of each rule.

At it’s heart, In Defense of Food is an indictment of nutritionism.  This is the process where by scientific reductionism food is broken down into it’s basic nutrients.  In nutritionism, it is at the nutrient-level where “foods” are recommend for their healthful benefits or condemned for their ill-effects.  Pollan contends that a lot of these recommendations are made under pressure from food processing companies and government agencies without thorough research on how the food (or food products) acts at the macro-level.  This lack of understanding about how food works leads to the contradictory recommendations that a food is healthy one year and deadly the next (and vice versa). Furthermore, it ignores how whole foods act as a nutrient delivery system.  For example, a plant leaf may dissolve in the digestive system releasing nutrients in a healthful way, while the same nutrient as an additive to a food product can flood the body in unhealthful ways.  Additionally, Pollan states there is little research how nutrients act in balance with one another.

The processing of food often removes the nutrients needed, even when the cartons make claims to the healthfulness of what should be inside. As a result, we live in a country where people are eating and eating and eating in search of nutrients they cannot find.  Thus the oxymoron of a people who overeat but are still undernourished.

On the one hand this book is a vindication.  I always felt better eating real butter, sugar and other whole foods when everyone told me it’s healthier to consume margarine and aspartame and the like (ok, I could cut back on the sugar some more).  I  never trusted high fructose corn syrup.  The way people glom onto fad diets withouth much evidence that they’re healthful drives me crazy.  I would add to Pollan’s rules: “Never trust a diet with a name (ex. Adkins, South Beach, et al). On the other hand I live on a supposedly healthy vegetarian diet, but I don’t eat nearly enough leafy plants and I rely way too much on processed foods even if they’re supposedly healthy meals from Trader Joe’s.

Pollan often refers to the traditional nutritionist we should trust as “Mom.”  Unfortunately, he fails to acknowledge that Mom is now working 40+ hours out of the home. So is Dad and sometimes the kids are too. The time crunch many Americans face that put real pressures on the time available to select, prepare and eat food. This is not to be critical of Pollan, but I’d like to come up with extra rules that would help people incorporate healthy relationships with food into their busy lives. It seems it would need to be a cultural change as well as individual.  It could be as simple as teaching someone like me what to look for at a farmer’s market:  which type of produce should I look for, how should I judge it’s quality, how much do I bring home, and what do I do with it when I get home?  It sounds dumb, but I really need such remedial training, and I’m sure I’m not the only one.

A good book to pair with In Defense of Food is Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, in which author Barbara Kingsolver and her family spend a year eating locally, organically, and sustainably.  It come recommended by my sister and is central to this great episode of Speaking of Faith with Krista Tippet called The Ethics of Eating.

Professional reviews:

Favorite Passages

How a people eats is one of the most powerful ways they have to express, and preserve, their cultural identity, which is exactly what you don’t want in a society dedicated to the ideal of “Americanization.”  To make food choices more  scientific is to empty them of their ethnic content and history; in theory, at least, nutrionism proposes a neutral, modernist, forward-looking and potentially unifying answer to the  question of what it might mean to eat like an American.  It is also a way to moralize about other people’s choices without seeming to.  In this, nutrionism is a  little like the institution of the American front lawn, an unobjectionable, if bland way to pave over our differences and Americanize the landscape.  Of course in both cases unity comes at the price of aesthetic diversity and sensory pleasure.  Which may be precisely the point.  – pp. 57-58

When most of us think about food and health, we think in fairly narrow nutritionist terms — about our personal physical health and how ingestion of this particular nutrient or rejection of that affects it.  But I no longer think it’s possible to seperate our bodily health from the health of the environment from which we eat or, for that matter, from the healt of our general outlook about food (and health).  If my explorations of the food chain have taught me anything, it’s that it is a food chain, and all the links in it are in fact linked: the health of the soil to the health of the plants and animals we eat to the health of the food culture in which we eat them to the health of the eater, in body as well as mind.  So you will find rules here concerning not only what to eat but also how to eat it as well as how that food is produced.  Food consists not just in piles of chemicals; it also comprises a set of social and ecological relationships, reach back to the land and outward to other people. – p. 144

But meat, which humans have been going to heroic lengths to obtain and have been relishing for a very long time, is nutritious  food, supplying all the essential amino acids as well as many vitamins and minerals, and I haven’t found a compelling health reason to exclude it from the diet (That’s not to say there aren’t good ethical or enviromental reasons to do so).

That said, eating meat in the tremendous quantaties we do (each American now consumes and average of two hundred pounds of meat a year) is probably not a good idea, especially when that meat comes from a highly industrialized food chain.  Several studies point to the conclusion that the more meat there is in your diet — read meat especially — the greater your risk of heart disease and cancer.  Yet studies of flexitarians suggest that small amounts of meat — less than one serving a day — don’t appear to increase one’s risk.  Thomas Jefferson probably had the right idea when he reccomended using meat more as a flavoring princinple than as a main course, treating it as a “condiment for vegetables.” — p. 165-6

EAT FOOD

  • Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.
  • Don’t eat anything incapable of rotting
  • Avoid food products containing ingredients that are:
    • Unfamiliar
    • Unpronouncable
    • More than five in number
    • Or, include High Fructose Corn Syrup
  • Avoid food products that make health claims
  • Shop the peripheries of the supermarket and stay out of the middle
  • Get out of the supermarket whenever possible

MOSTLY PLANTS

  • Eat mostly plants. Especially leaves
  • You are what what you eat eats too
  • If you have the space, buy a freezer (to preserve cuts of meat)
  • Eat like an omnivore
  • Eat well-grown food from healthy soils
  • Eat wild foods when you can
  • Be the kind of person who takes supplements (but don’t waste your money unless you’re over 50)
  • Eat more like the French.  Or the Italians. Or the Japanese.  Or the Indians.  Or the Greeks.
  • Regard non-traditional foods with skepticism
  • Don’t look for the magic bullet in the traditional diet
  • Have a glass of wine with dinner

NOT TOO MUCH

  • Pay more, eat less
  • Eat meals
  • Do all you’re eating at a table (a desk doesn’t count)
  • Don’t get your fuel from the same place your car does
  • Try not to eat alone
  • Consult your gut
  • Eat slowly
  • Cook, and if you can, plant a garden

Pollan, Michael.
In defense of food : an eater’s manifesto / Michael Pollan.
New York : Penguin Press, 2008.
244 p. ; 23 cm

Book Review: The Pirates! In An Adventure with Scientists by Gideon Defoe

The Pirates! In An Adventure with Scientists (2004) by Gideon Defoe is a natural book for me to read.  I like pirates!  I like Charles Darwin!  I like humor!  This slim book brings them all together.

The gist of the story is that a ragtag bunch of pirates known only by their attributes (the Pirate Captain, the pirate with the scarf, the pirate with the accordion) join Charles Darwin in adventure to take on the Bishop of Oxford with his trained ape, the Man-Panzee.  And from their it gets rather absurd.  I enjoy the silly adventures and the even more ridiculous footnotes.  I suspect it very easily can be seen by someone with different tastes as stupid, but to each their own.

A lot of reviews compare The Pirates! with Monty Python and Douglas Adams.  That’s because Gideon Defoe is British and writes funny things.  I would say instead that this book is reminiscent of Tom Holt, who is yes, British and yes, writes funny things like The Portable Door.

Defoe, Gideon.
The pirates! : in an adventure with scientists / Gideon Defoe.
London : Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2004.
135 p. : ill., maps ; 17 cm.

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