Tag: Books

I always complain that I don’t read books often enough. This is proof.

Healing the Curse of Knowledge

Last year I read the book Made to Stick, in which the phrase “The Curse of Knowledge” makes an appearance. The authors of the book will be delighted to know that the phrase stuck in my head and I can be heard applying it in all sorts of scenarios.

The principle is quite simple:

Once we know something, we find it hard to imagine what it was like not to know it. Our knowledge has “cursed” us. And it becomes difficult for us to share our knowledge with others, because we can’t readily re-create our listeners’ state of mind.
Made to Stick

For example, during the course of an average week I will have several conversations with people who have a lot more knowledge of a specific thing than I do. Typically these will be software developers who have an in-depth knowledge of computers, how they work and most specifically how they thingmajig they are currently building works. There is a lot of presumed knowledge in these discussions, some rightly (I do know the principles of object-oriented programming) and some wrongly.

And, of course, I do exactly the same when talking to others. Everyone does it, it’s human nature. Where it really starts to hurt is when the Curse descends upon your technical writing.

I’ve fallen into this trap myself, and we do try and peer review our output to make sure a non-expert is looking at the documentation (non-expert in the specific area but still within ‘target audience’ boundaries of knowledge) and, largely, that’s the best you can expect to do with the typical resource and timescale limitations we all worked within.

There is another aspect to technical writing which falls prey to this Curse. There is sometimes a level of disassociation at play as we focus in on word usage and the grammar of what we write, rather than trying to use our information as a user would. It’s a fine distinction but using the software and documenting it is not the same as using the document to use the software.

A Message for Obama (pt. 2)

In early November I took a photo of myself holding a short message for the ‘soon to be President’ Barack Obama. It was as part of a Flickr group which I thought was a nice idea and which seemed to capture the mood at the time. I mentioned it here and, to be honest, thought nothing of it until I received an email from Meg who was heading up the project to compile some of the photos into a book (modesty prevents me from suggesting the chose the best photos), who asked if I’d mind if they (The Guardian) included my photo in their book.

Of course not!

I received my copy of said book yesterday and, whilst I realise it is close to Xmas, it would make an excellent stocking filler/coffee table book and you get double karma points as all the Guardian’s profits from the sale of the book will go to the Katine development project.

And don’t worry, it’s not JUST my ugly mug that adorns the pages.

Mr. Men

Like many children of my era, I grew up being read, then reading, the wonderfully insightful Mr. Men books.

I had a Mr. Tickle hot water bottle, Mr. Men wallpaper and even a matching Mr. Men bedspread. I had the Mr. Men tapes, which I’m sure my parents must’ve grown thoroughly sick off as I demanded that, for the umpteenth weekend in a row, that it accompany our journey to visit my Gran and even a windup plastic Mr. Bump.

I have vague memories of lying in bed, listening to my Dad reading me the stories. Hazy recollections of standing at the counter in John Menzies with my Mum as she purchased another of the books. The theme tune evokes, for no particular reason, a very vivid memory of sitting in the car as we crossed the Erskine Bridge.

Sadly, these days, the Mr. Men have evolved into all sorts of nonsense. Whilst the introduction of “Little Miss…” was of course most welcome, the latest batch are sullying the good name of the Mr. Men. Poor Roger Hargreaves.

Or rather rich Roger Hargreaves I would imagine.

The reason I mention all this now is that I, dear reader, am on a quest. It is of vital importance and is likely to consume me for sometime. You can blame my parents. No, I don’t mean in the Larkin sense but this is directly because, whilst visiting at the weekend, my Mum handed me all my old Mr. Men books!! My Dad had been doing some clearing out and stumbled across them and they thought they’d better check with me before chucking them out.

Too bloody right!

These are original copies, with the original set – Messrs. Messy, Silly, Dizzy, Muddle, Bump, Greedy, Nosey, Sneeze, Uppity, Noisy, Mean, Small, Strong, Daydream, Lazy, Chatterbox, Jelly, Impossible, Fussy, Tickle, Happy, Topsy-Turvy, Forgetful, Snow, Bounce and Funny – published in 1972, and the additional members published in 1978 – Mischief, Worry, Skinny, Wrong, Tall, Rush, Quiet, Busy, Slow, Clever, Nonsense, Clumsy and Grumpy.

At least that’s what they SHOULD have been, turns out I’m missing 4 Mr. Men (you know where this is going, don’t you). Messrs Bounce, Mischief, Rush and Clever have escaped, probably borrowed and never returned.

So, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to hunt eBay and the interwebs for these to fill out my collection.

Ohh and if you are considering being helpful I should point out that the original books DON’T have the spine printing of the more recent publications.

There's nothing like a good book

We are off to Spain next week so there are some vital things to sort out. Namely what music to put on my iPhone (I’ve got Series 1 of The Wire on there already), and most importantly what books to take!

I’ve got a Jeffrey Deaver and an Ian Rankin on standby and have just ordered Casino Royale and Live and Let Die so that should get me through the week, in between trips to the pub and general lounging around of course.

I don’t really make time to read all that much these days, in fact I struggle to get through the two monthly magazine subscriptions I receive (Esquire and Runners World if you must know). Aside from that mostly everything I read is for work related purposes and even then I’ve got a backlog, it’s just never that high up my priority list to be honest. I’ve tried to ‘hack’ my habits to get back to reading more often but nothing has worked, my attention and thoughts continue to lie elsewhere and, if I’m honest I’m fairly happy with that at the moment. We’ll see if that changes any time soon but my take is that, if I was REALLY that bothered I’d have done something about it.

Obviously I’m not.

That said there is a part of me that is looking forward to getting away, purely to be able to completely zone out in a good book, or at the very least a trashy thriller. There is nothing quite like losing all sense of time whilst you frantically flip pages, desperate to get to the next part of the story, and the quiet sense of despair you feel when you reach the end and, just like that, it’s over. You don’t get that with every book, some just fizzle out and leave you somewhat deflated but others take you on such a journey that the temptation to re-read them immediately is almost overwhelming.

Go on then, what are you reading right now? (aside from this blog, obviously!).

Made to Stick

Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Take Hold and Others Come Unstuck

I can’t recall why I picked up this book, most likely a recommendation from the same sources through which I discovered The Tipping Point (which itself inspired this book), but I’ve been dipping in and out of it for a while and finally finished it this weekend. That’s an indication of my reading habits recently, not any reflection on the quality of this book.

Whilst most would regard this as a business focussed book it, like Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, is more about the ideas than their application. That said there are plenty of concrete examples given to reaffirm the basic premise of the book, that there are six key qualities that make an idea “sticky”:

  1. Simplicity
  2. Unexpectedness
  3. Concreteness
  4. Credibility
  5. Emotion
  6. Stories

It’s a fascinating read, including some well-known ideas (JFK’s “Put a man on the moon in 10 years”), throughout which several thoughts sparked in my brain as I started to connect some of the key qualities in a sticky idea with our profession. After all, what better way to make sure people get the most out of the information you provide than to make it sticky?!

Of course there are some parts of the book which, whilst interesting, can’t really be applied directly but I was amazed that, with a little bit of creative spin, you could probably adapt most of the ideas within to make your content stickier.

Made to Stick is very much one of those books which hold some simple truths which are well stated and analysed. Throughout the book there are many examples, so getting a handle on what each of the six qualities brings to the table is easy, and to be honest a lot of what is said you probably already know you just don’t know how to pull it all together.

There are some excerpts on the book’s website and if you enjoyed The Tipping Point then give it a look.

A good book

We all know that there are many excellent writers out there who blog just as there are many bloggers who are excellent writers. This latter point is proven by the publication of You’re Not The Only One, a collection of stories written by people who blog, and which was compiled to raise funds for War Child.

So, if you want a good read, go buy it. Or if you just want to support a charity that works with the children trapped in war-torn countries, go buy it and then hand it in to a charity shop (two lots of karma in one go!).

For full details of the book, how it was compiled and who is in it, go and see the woman that made it happen.

New books

So I’ve updated my bookshelf with a couple of new books, and an old one.

I’ve started The World Is Flat which is utterly fascinating, even if it is slightly outside of the more traditional technical communications area. However anyone with any interest in social media (aka Web 2.0) should give it a look. My personal opinion is that our jobs are going to become increasingly influenced by such things so it’s good to get a bit of perspective on how they are already making an impact.

How many books is too many?

I have a lot of books. I have a lot of unread books. I keep saying I’ll go through the ones I’ve read and ditch some but I never do. Instead I buy more. I don’t know why I do that. Why do I do that? Why do I buy more? I have enough as it is, many unread. So why, as I have many books, do I buy?

It’s a compulsion, etched into my mind, an inherited trait that I can’t fight, an itch that remains out of reach no matter which way I toss and turn.

I have books on all sorts of topics, fictional stories that others have recommended, factual books on many topics, from mental wellbeing, web design, philosophy, gardening, exercise, movies and more. Just about all of them are kept for some tenuous reason or another but I really need to let go…

But that doesn’t help solve the puzzle of why I keep buying new books, especially as I have so many that remain unread, some of which I purchased several years ago.

I’ll quite happily admit that I bought a few books with ‘betterment’ in mind (and ‘of mind’). Be they a classic novel or a book on the great philosophical thinkers (bought from Meg I think) I deliberately chose them with a view to becoming better read, whatever that means, although I quickly ditched those in favour of the really highbrow stuff (The Da Vinci Code for example) so that reasoning has back-fired.

I wonder if I buy books because I don’t trust my memory and I’m scared I’ll forget the name or author of that one killer book? Perhaps I need to do is hack my brain to chuck the name and author of a book into a list, rather than just order it “because it’s only £4.99”. I mean we all know what lies at the end of that road, “it’s only £4.99” soon becomes, “yeah but I’m gettin’ 4 books for under £20!”, swiftly followed by “Ohhh one more for free shipping…”.

I buy books based on author, David Mitchell, Ian Rankin, Alice Sebold, and ignore them for the latest James Patterson. Hell I’ve probably read more pages from Esquire magazine in the past 6 months than I have pages of a book. I know I go through spells of reading but this is becoming an increasingly dry time. A fallow spell of unbroken spines, if you will.

Why do I read? For enjoyment largely. I enjoy the escape, the way time slips past in the shadows as you immerse yourself deeper and deeper into the words on the page.

If this were a movie, this is where you’d get a CGI scene with the words floating up off the page and spinning up and round me as I sit, transfixed.

Ohh and whilst I remember, you bloggers who have had books published (I count 5 on my shelf) aren’t helping!

You know what, perhaps a clear out would help. Allow me to refocus on the books I’ve not read. Yes yes, a clear out is in order.

Let’s not be too hasty though… let me just check what Amazon have on sale…

Black Swan Green

Black Swan Green

Another holiday book, by a favourite author, and it’s as every bit as good as his previous novels, whilst remaining (like the others) completely different to anything he’s written before.

In the book, you spend just over a year with a 13 year old boy called Jason as he plots his way through the various minefields he encounters. Set in the early 1980s, pop culture references litter the novel and, as an 80s kid, whisked me back to that time of in my life. Jason is a kid who not only struggles to fit in, being smarter than average and he enjoys writing poetry whilst knowing that it’s a bit “gay” and could get him beaten up, but who also struggles with a stutter.

Jason narrates the story and it’s a credit to David Mitchell that you empathise so strongly with his lead character that you begin to sense how he is feeling before it is fully articulated. Admittedly it may be because I see some of myself in Jason, but that doesn’t detract from, as usual, the wonderfully engaging style that Mitchell brings to all his novels.

Dealing with various life changing events, including the impact of the Falklands War on a small rural community in England, I was so caught up with the book that I almost felt cheated when it was over.

If you haven’t read any of David Mitchell’s books before then this may be a good place to start as it’s, probably, the most accessible. However, they all share a similar trait in his wonderful depictions and vivid wordplay that brings his stories to life, dancing from the page.

Highly recommended.

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

Blimey, it’s been ages since I wrote a book review.

This was passed to me by my Mum, and was quickly added to the book pile for taking on holiday.

The story is simple enough, a rich man from Yemen wants to introduce salmon fishing to his local area. He has millions to spend and uses his contacts in the UK to get some assistance from a government fisheries agency. Told via emails, diary extracts and interview notes, the story flips from view to view, but mainly follows a middle-aged fishery scientist as the project to get salmon to the Yemen takes him on a personal journey.

The story unfolds nicely, although it’s pretty straightforward with a little twist introduced towards the end (which I won’t spoil), the pacing is ok, and…

Well, I’ll be honest, I’m not really sure what to make of the book. It wasn’t bad, not at all, but it just didn’t really grab me. Some parts of the story were a little too contrived and the dialogue, as such, just felt a little forced.

Suffice to say it was an enjoyable holiday book. It wasn’t taxing to read, and kept me mildly entertained between visits to the pub… 😉