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Reflecting on McCrumb books

May 12, 2016 Leave a comment

On May 10 I attended the premiere of Sharyn McCrumb’s latest book, Prayers the Devil Answers, at the Salem Historical Museum in Salem VA. Sharyn is a great storyteller, both in person and in her writings, and I’ve enjoyed hearing her talk about how her books come into being over a long period of time. Last night’s premiere was no exception…and it gives me an excuse to revisit her work and talk about some of my favorites.2016-05-10 20.21.42

Sharyn McCrumb is an Appalachian author in every sense of the word. She’s born and bred in the region, with family roots that go way back.  Plus, she really does her homework with the books she writes, and it shows. She’s best known for the multiple stories she interweaves in her books, but she also does a great job crafting interesting, believable, and flawed characters with whom a reader is made to feel a connection. In recent years her characters increasingly have been based on historical figures, including NC Civil War Governor Zebulon Vance. She also has some recurring characters whom she’s revisited at various life stages: a collection of law enforcement officers including Sheriff Spencer Arrowood, and possessors of “the sight” Nora Bonesteel and Rattler.

I can’t yet comment on this latest book, but I’ve read many of her other books at least once, and some multiple times. Here are some of my favorites, roughly in order (though that changes).

  1. She Walks These Hills: A series of interwoven tales about a woman who escaped from Shawnee captors in 1779 and walked hundreds of miles home, a grad student who seeks to retrace her path, and an escaped convict who happens upon the same trail–in the end all coming together in an interesting way. I identify with the characters even more than many of her other books–some days I’m grad student Jeremy Lamb wandering through the woods, other days I’m Harm Sorley…and maybe even a bit of radio announcer Hank the Yank or police deputy Martha.
  2. Rosewood Casket: A story about adult children who come home to say goodbye (and, in the end, bury) their elderly father.  An interesting and emotional book–I might appreciate this book even more when it becomes more real for me.
  3. The Ballad of Tom Dooley: A more recent novel, it really shows how far she’s come in her ability to research the heck out of a topic, then tie together the things she learned in an engaging tale set in Civil War times.  It seems she really found a unique and believable angle for an assortment of characters–a diseased and godless young woman, her beautiful but lazy cousin, the apathetic and faceless husband, the idle but handsome lover.
  4. The Songcatcher: Highlighted in this book is a father-daughter relationship, where they are seeking to reunite during the father’s dying days. There are parallel stories tracing the McCourry family history and a pair of small plane crashes separated by several decades. (Note: this book is not related to the 2000 movie, except in the songcatcher theme)
  5. Ghost Riders: Another book that weaves several stories together, rich in Civil War themes. It highlights how Appalachian people–both then and now–engage with the Civil War…the anger of stolen land and food and people by both sides, and a desire to be left alone.  The book features Civil War reenactors, a recurring character named Rattler, NC Governor Zebulon Vance, and Appalachian newlyweds Keith and Melinda Blalock just trying to make their way in life.
  6. Foggy Mountain Breakdown: It’s hard to compare a collection of stories to a novel.  There are some stories in here that are among her best, and there are some that I skip.  Most have some phrase or paragraph that I really love, though.  And some have phrases and themes that appear in novels.  I tag them when I read them, favs include Telling the Bees, Precious Jewel, A Predatory Woman, Happiness is a Dead Poet, and the title story Foggy Mountain Breakdown.

Most of these books are categorized as in her “ballad” series, that includes many other good books as well. You may also come across her short stories from time to time; some of the best are in the Foggy Mountain Breakdown collection described above. She also wrote a set of “MacPherson mysteries” (e.g., If I Killed Him When I Met Him) that are in the classic whodunit style.  And her first books had Virginia Tech and sci-fi connections to them that may appeal to some people.

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Categories: Book reviews

Book reflection: Rich Gold’s The Plenitude

April 3, 2012 1 comment

my Rich Gold style portrait of Rich Gold


Rich Gold “authored” The Plenitude: Creativity, Innovation, and Making Stuff in 2007, four years after his premature death. Rich created things for organizations that included Xerox PARC, Mattel, and Sega. The book was drawn together by his colleague John Maeda and his wife Marina LaPalma from extensive notes, drawings, and other materials created by Rich. “The Plenitude” refers to the stuff in the world created by people—an early example from the book exemplifies its scope and complexity through the thousands of things in a kitchen, from utensils, to appliances to manufactured food items. The book discusses four disciplines that “have created about 95 percent of the Plenitude”, seven patterns of innovation common to the disciplines, and a great many examples that probe the nature, morality, consequences, and future of the Plenitude.

I first read The Plenitude in 2009, when I was looking for books to use as a common book for my NSF-sponsored Research Experience for Undergrads (REU) program. Steve Harrison, one of Rich’s colleagues at PARC, pointed me to the book. (One of his favorite Rich Gold metaphors is his “wet-damp-dry” model for the field of human-computer interaction.) It immediately struck me as a highly readable book, but one that students could pick up at many times during their careers for reflection—a great book for undergrads considering possible career paths. It was short and highly visual, but rich in discussion topics.

my Rich Gold style representation of Rich Gold's creative hats

In his book, Rich describes four creative hats that he’s worn, corresponding to his four core disciplines of art, science, design, and engineering, arranged in a matrix. His many talks resulted in two very different reactions: people walking up to the matrix and pointing to their place on it, and an insistence by people that it was not possible to position themselves on the matrix as they cannot be “put in a square in a box”. It was similar to design/science/engineering models used by many others (including me) to reflect about technology—and it’s been a source of tension and progress in the human-computer interactions community of late.

Rich also outlines seven shared patterns of innovation that he describes as common methods across the four disciplines: necessity is the mother of invention, it’s a thing of genius, the Big Kahuna, the future exists, colonization (find the unowned; package it; sell it back), stuff desires to be better stuff, and change the definition. Rich provides definitions and examples for each: e.g., Weiser’s ubiquitous computing vision is a Big Kahuna, expensive video baseball games (compared to virtually free real baseball) exemplify colonization.

There are lots of other examples that I’ll let the interested reader cover. But Rich closes the book with a quote from his PARC colleague Stu Card that bears repeating: “We should be careful to make the world we actually want to live in.” Seems like a good closing!

Categories: Book reviews

Book review: The Heretic’s Guide to Best Practices

January 23, 2012 5 comments

The Heretic’s Guide to Best Practices: The Reality of Managing Complex Problems in Organisations, by Paul Culmsee and Kailash Awati, examines how groups of people can work to define a complex problem and to identify possible solutions. The book is divided into three sections: the first part argues why “best practices” often fail in the face of wicked problems; the second examines how people can work together (with a focus on dialog mapping, issue-based information systems (IBIS), and Compendium), and the third provides case studies illustrating successes and lessons learned from the authors’ work experiences. I found the middle section to be the most interesting and enlightening: it included motivation and history behind dialog mapping, with lots of illustrative examples and key citations balanced by alternative approaches. Much of the book centered around Compendium use and examples, the free IBIS-based dialog mapping tool I discussed in a previous post. In case you worry that the authors don’t eat their own dog food, a great many of the figures were generated by Compendium—reflecting intermediate steps of how a manager can address wicked problems using the tool.

The book represents an interesting pairing of authors. Paul Culmsee is a consultant who probably knows more about dialog mapping and Compendium than anyone (except maybe Jeff Conklin of gIBIS fame, who wrote a glowing foreword to the book with high praise for Culmsee). Kailash Awati is an information systems manager, with a couple of Ph.D. degrees and experience at several levels in academia. Both Culmsee and Awati blog prolifically, and many of their blog posts fed nicely into this book (a trick I’m using to prepare my book). People familiar with their styles will find their key writing styles featuring irreverent humor, pop-culture references, and in-depth examples prevalent in this book. (At times, though, I feel their pop-culture irreverence would be better if rooted in fact; e.g., the real Clippy story is interesting and perhaps relevant, and people and stories behind the development are still out there.)

There were a few major weaknesses of the book (though in the spirit of “wicked-ness”, many of these drawbacks to me may be neutral (or advantages!) to you, so take them as such). The index is very weak (less than 3 pages for a book approaching 400 pages). I’d love to look up what they have to say about strong reciprocity, or whose views of claims they discuss, or their view of McCall’s PHI approach to wicked problems, or their thoughts on positions in IBIS, or numerous other topics—but such a short index just doesn’t provide adequate support for a lot of important queries. In addition, I often find that books suffer from a certain myopia when it comes to the authors’ favored approaches, though there’s somewhat less fan-dom in this book than is seen in many books of this type. They certainly show a favoritism to IBIS and Compendium, but it’s the authors’ prerogative in writing a book to choose approaches to focus on and how much to talk about the weaknesses of a favored approach. More generally, they took the “depth over breadth” approach in this book, with heavy details about a few approaches rather than touching on a more inclusive set. It’s great to see examples, but not at the exclusion of alternatives. Somewhat telling, the references list contains only 122 references—there’s no mention of the work of Schön, Toulmin, McCall, Moran, Carroll, or others who have had important (nay, foundational) things to say about the topics in this book.

So who should get this book? The book targets technology managers who are looking for a way to address complex problems, and plenty of software professionals (e.g., ones who want to “deprogram” their managers) could benefit from it as well. Certainly anyone who uses Compendium or, more generally, embraces IBIS as a design approach or wicked problems as a problem classification should read it. If you like Jeff Conklin’s book, then (dare I say it?) I bet you will like this one even more. To grossly oversimplify, this is like Conklin’s book but moreso: more motivation and framing of the problem type, lots more examples, 5 years more of experiences and Compendium advances, more history of where these ideas came from, and more positive and negative examples of Compendium’s utility. If that sounds appealing, you should get a copy of this book.

Books capturing the American Southwest

January 11, 2012 1 comment

One of the things I like to do to get a sense of a new place where I visit is to read some of the local literature, an activity I’ve pursued during my sabbatical at the University of Colorado, Boulder. I define “local” fairly broadly—to include Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico—where I’ve done most of my traveling while out here. I’ve been fortunate to get recommendations (and book loans!) from neighbors, acquaintances, and local bookstores. Here are some of the more memorable books recommended to me.

John Nichols’ The Milagro Beanfield War describes a battle over water rights in northern New Mexico. The primary focus is on the development and portrayal of characters (archetypes? stereotypes?) that reflect the independent spirit of a community of people who mainly want to be left alone. In the afterword to my edition of the book, Nichols notes “I hadn’t planned out the novel; I just started typing.” And it kind of shows, for better and worse, with a loosely-connected slow-moving story about amusing people doing odd things. And if you only have two hours, you can watch the well-received Robert Redford film adaptation of the book (disclaimer: I’ve not seen it yet).

Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang has something of a similar tone, focusing on a group of people who share little more than a strong sense of environmental responsibility in the face of building, dam, bridge, and road construction in the southwest. Brought together on a rafting trip, they decide the way to exhibit their love of nature is to destroy all aspects of the construction: the buildings and bridges and such, as well as the bulldozers and other machines that aided in their construction. Like the previous book, this one is more about the development of the characters and the portrayal of the landscape rather than telling a story—which can be a good thing if you want a sense of the American southwest.

From a very different genre is Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop. It’s not often that a book can give away the ending in the title and still be worth reading, but this book manages to do just that—mainly because it’s more about the characters and the land than a story. It’s loosely based on a true story about Catholic priests sent to the American Southwest in the mid-1800s, and it does a great job of capturing the great difficulties in traveling across the desolate landscape of New Mexico (which still isn’t trivial, even with a giant GPS-equipped minivan). Cather paints a picture of the landscape that still exists today—reading this book will provide a nice preview if you’re planning to spend time in this area.

Timothy Egan’s The Worst Hard Time, which I talked about extensively in a previous post, captures life in the dust bowl (parts of Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas) around the time of the Great Depression. The local towns around here named the book the area’s common book, leading to lots of interesting events with reflections passed down from those who survived during this era. It’s a good book made better by the events that were held in the area.

There are a couple of Boulder authors who came highly recommended by our local independent book store, the Boulder Book Store. Marlys Millhiser’s best-known book, The Mirror, was my favorite of the recommendations. It’s a sci-fi/horror mix about a young woman who switched places with her grandmother, leaving the the granddaughter to navigate the early 20th century with late 20th century knowledge and skills. But the most interesting aspect was in tracing and reflecting upon the evolving lifestyle in Boulder and the surrounding areas during the 20th century. Millhiser has written a number of other books, including a popular series of mysteries. And on the topic of mysteries, I read one of an extensive series by Boulder author Steven White and looked through a couple of others—they seemed like the usual mystery novels, but with references to Arapahoe Avenue and King Soopers and such sprinkled through them. If you like books by authors like John D. MacDonald and Dean Koontz and Robert Parker, then White’s mysteries (and Millhiser’s) will probably appeal to you. It’s not my favorite genre though, so I’m a bad person to comment on it.

So that’s the “local” reading I’ve done—comments and suggestions greatly appreciated.

Categories: Book reviews

Book review: The Worst Hard Time

October 6, 2011 1 comment

The town of Louisville CO (and the surrounding towns) named Timothy Egan’s The Worst Hard Time as the area’s common book.  Each participating town agreed to host events relating to the book, and it was prominently featured at farmers markets, town fairs, and the like.  The book blended news history and personal anecdotes into a bleak picture of the dust bowl era midwest–farmers who went all in (and more) on their farms, and the towns and businesses that failed with them in the face of the Great Depression and the frequent dust storms.

Dave Ferrell led the reading group I attended.  He’d read the book, along with other books and videos on the topic.  He did a good job of drawing out stories from the people in attendance.  Even though this part of Colorado wasn’t part of the dust bowl, there were lots of parent and grandparent stories about surviving that situation–some reflected the gravity from the stories of the book, some claimed it was not so bad.  Dave and others did a great job drawing parallels between those times and now, things like farm subsidies, government support, FEMA.

It was an older crowd, average age among the 30 attendees was probably 65; I was probably the youngest in the room by 5-10 years.  There was an agronomist, Gary, who lamented that there weren’t more young people in attendance.  Lots of potential reasons for that: timing, promotion methods, lack of kid-friendly events, no social media connection, no prescence in K-12 schools, or other factors.  Or maybe I’m just part of the me generation that hasn’t suffered through this type of tiime (yet).

Overall, it was an enjoyable book–one of those new-age histories penned by a journalist with a knack for telling a story.  And it’s great to see a decent crowd come together in town for the discussion.  I see great value in common books–I’ve led several book groups for various organizations–and I’m hopeful that this one will lead to some learning and sharing and healing and community-building.

Categories: Book reviews

Book review: Alex Wright’s Glut: Mastering information through the ages

September 26, 2011 Leave a comment

I recently finished reading Alex Wright’s book “Glut”, a highly-readable meta-history about information. It seeks to connect many centuries of advances in information management, categorization, communication, and sharing. This book is highlighted by ample examples and figures and images to aid with comprehension. Despite the title, the book is not so much about information overload as about finding ways to capture and share information–toward advancing a species (usually but not always humans) to a position of greater knowledge and understanding.

Alex Wright describes himself as an “information architect” with projects to his credit at places like IBM, Microsoft, Yahoo!, and Harvard. He’s done graduate work in usability engineering at UC Berkeley and in journalism at Harvard (where he also served as a librarian for a while), so he understands the technological and library-science aspects of mastering information. He’s authored articles in venues like interactions magazine, Boxes and Arrows, and the New York Times (where’s he’s an editor and frequent contributor). And he spent many of his formative years in the great state of Virginia.

Weighing in at only 238 pre-appendix pages, this book certainly does not seek to provide thorough coverage of the thousands of years of information history that are encompassed. As such, the author is accused by many reviewers of cherry-picking things of interest that support his arguments. However, that seems to be the prerogative of an author of this type of book–you can’t cover it all in this sort of meta-history, and there will always be an incompleteness in this sort of book. The author even acknowledges as much in the introduction, likening himself to a cartographer of old trying to draw a map of distant lands–and making the expected errors of omission and commission.

Much of the early parts of the book seeks to connect the ways that humans deal with information through biological and sociological arguments–which often come across as incomplete or unconvincing. I’m not at all sure that epigenetic rules drive our online classification systems of today, ice-age communities portend Internet-age chatrooms, and similar arguments from the early chapters seem like a bit of a stretch (or maybe it’s just incompletely argued, or maybe I’m missing something). I’ll certainly give the author credit for bringing up the possibility of connections, and some may prove correct with further study (however tenuous they seem in this book).

But the book got progressively better, and the last few chapters (the ones dealing with more glut-tonous problems) were really engaging. Wright covered visionaries like Cutter, Dewey, McLuhan, Otlet, Engelbart, Nelson, and Berners-Lee–comparing and contrasting their ideas and probing at why they were successful (or not) in pursuing their vision. I particularly like Wright’s focus on the arc of success for many of these visionaries, as he doesn’t merely touch upon their well-known work but instead looks at their paths to success, why they were successful, and why they failed. His final chapter, titled “Memories of the Future”, is a too-short connection of the themes of the book to recent and ongoing events in information management.

In summary, the book seems like a great fit for someone looking for a general book about information and library science–perhaps a good match for a professionalism in computing class, or an auxiliary reading for other computer science or HCI classes.

Book review: Tom Kelly’s The Ten Faces of Innovation

June 7, 2011 Leave a comment

I’m leaving behind Tom Kelly’s The Ten Faces of Innovation, and I wanted to capture a few thoughts about it before I say goodbye.  Kelly worked at IDEO for years as a designer/manager, where he helped lead creative design efforts.

The book discusses the limitations of the “devil’s advocate” approach to interactions, which he reports can stifle early innovation.  He puts forth ten other roles that can be helpful in design: anthropologist, experimenter, cross-pollinator, hurdler, collaborator, director, experience architect, set designer, caregiver, and storyteller.  The book defines, exemplifies, and case studies each of these with lots of bold headers, highlighted quotes, and representative pictures.

The book reminds me a bit of McGrath’s Behavior of Groups theory, in which he implores us (psychologists, but HCIers too) to be more than experimenters by considering the different stages of design and reasons why groupware exists (e.g., to drive production, to foster teamwork).  There’s a great table in the paper that lays out the stages x reasons and describes what each intersection point means.

I’m certainly guilty of falling into the devil’s advocate role too often.  But I do pretty good as a hurdler, an experimenter, and a caregiver too.  And not so good at some of the others.  I’m thinking to put the list up on my wall, so I can both remember to wear the different hats, but also remember that the students who work for me, the collaborators whom I work with, and the administrators whom I work for have their own strengths and weaknesses among the roles.

Categories: Book reviews