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Archive for July, 2011

On being heard

When you hear your father call something “cool”, coolness loses its punch.

Ah, the pleasure of a well-written book.

Chip and Dan Health prescribe a formula for ‘sticky’ ideas, or just good communication that the audience can understand, remember and act on. This formula is represented in the easy mnemonic: SUCCES (without the second s) which stands for Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, Emotional, Stories. They demonstrate the effectiveness of their formula by applying it in their book.

  • Their premise is compact and meaningful: SUCCES is a tool to produce sticky ideas
  • They break the text with well-chosen anecdotes, exercises and case studies. They capture attention with teaser texts, draw the reader in, and do not disappoint. Most sections end with an intriguing description of what is in the next section, such as this:
A teacher from Iowa named Jane Elliott once designed a message so powerful – tapping into so many different aspects of emotion and memory – that, twenty years later, her students still remember it vividly.
  • They do not speak in abstract terms, rather involve the reader, do not over use statistics, and make the text totally relatable
  • Their ‘stories’ are from Journal articles, newspapers, and books. These are clearly real stories, used very well.
  • They appeal to a whole range of emotions, mainly staying likeable, relatable and pointing out ‘see this stuff works – see for yourself’, which also adds to their credibility. They make you care by telling you how easy it can be to be a better communicator, that it does not require inborn creativity, and that folk from all walks of life – teachers, evangelists, and flight attendants have unconsciously used these principles to be heard and remembered.
  • Their whole book is essentially a collection of stories, relevant stories, which stay in your head long after you’ve finished the book.
I actually took notes, and think I can put this stuff to good use – in a job interview, when coming up with a health communication design, teaching my son a concept, or even writing a little something.

I’d love to borrow a term that the Heath Brothers, Chip and Dan, use to describe themselves. Idea Collectors. I think and hope that each one of us, in our own way, is an idea collector. I certainly think I am one.

 

 

 

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I’ll have to admit it’s got material and would probably make a great ‘man on a mission’ type cover page story on a magazine, with some good pictures of the Korphe village against the Karakoram mountains, of the school students, of Greg Mortenson himself, a big white guy in a mud-colored salwar kameez, with his arms around bearded Balti people. But the author(s) are guilty of ignoring the journalistic adage ‘Don’t bury the lead!’, for the ‘lead’ has been swallowed up in digressions and lost in a badly written account that is sadly, a drag.

Three Cups of Tea is meant to be inspiring, and it certainly is, because it is about peace in a time of war, about books in a time of bombs, focuses on girls and women in a world of men, and also about seemingly impossible friendships and alliances, and about compassion. But.

The book has been co-authored by Greg Mortenson himself and David Oliver Relin. So you will understand my puzzlement as I try to understand why the entire book has been written in third person (referring to Mortenson by name and never once in first person) and in a tone so worshipful that I certainly hope Mortenson didn’t write it. The reverent tone is bothersome, chiefly because it idolizes what I will call ‘flaws’.  I do believe that a hero is like everybody else, and an overworked hero is certainly allowed more, shall we say imperfections. But why does Relin (or Mortenson himself?) try so hard to make Mortenson look good, even in a very tangential account of a failed relationship, which to me has little bearing on the subject matter, and is written in the tone of a petulant schoolboy who wants to get back at the girl who rejected him.

According to the story, Mortenson was overwhelmed by the kindness of the residents of the impoverished Korphe Village and promised to a build them a school. I do admire that Mortenson honored his promise, that he seems to truly care about the people in those regions and respect their culture , that he has tremendous perseverance, and what can only be called foolhardy courage. But, he has made his share of errors in judgment, of mismanagement, and bad planning (such as neglecting to consider the logistics of transporting constructions materials across a river to an isolated village). With better focus and writing, this book could have been an honest account not only of Mortenson’s achievements, but also of what he could have done better and what we can learn from these lessons. If the book was intended to be about Mortenson, and less about the state of affairs in Pakistan/Afghanistan, I would have liked to learn more about the steep sacrifices made by his family to endure his prolonged absences and the sheer terror of not knowing if he was coming back.

Greg Mortenson built schools. But he also built bridges and Vocational Centers for women, and provided scholarships to brilliant (women) students. These developments would certainly have had tremendous ramifications (some measurable), apart from just better education. Bridges would mean frequent contact between married women and their ‘original’ families, between hitherto isolated villages, and that children and young adults can leave to towns and cities for better education and jobs. Vocation centers and women participating in the economy would mean a complete re-ordering of gender dynamics, apart from empowerment of women. Any little progress made in the direction of peace also deserves mention. So, how are these villages doing today? The book does precious little to answer any question other than ‘Why is Mortenson a Hero?’

While I’d heard about Three Cups of Tea, I was intrigued enough to read the book when I heard about Three Cups of  Deceit by Jon Krakauer (a former Mortenson supporter), whose Into Thin Air I’ve read and liked.

Good story,bad writing. I hope the expose´is more readable.

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I am fascinated by the psychology of abuse, especially in familial relationships. While the motivation is usually power, the nature of abuse comes in different packages, especially when it is non-physical (and often under-recognized).

So, I found it encouraging when I read in an online newspaper that:

The Delhi high court has observed that casting aspersions on the character of a spouse is the worst form of cruelty and amounts to mental torture.

This is India we are talking about, where such abuse is possibly routinely administered, suffered and sadly, not even recognized for what it is. Emotional/verbal abuse, in all its glorious forms, such as character assassination and crazymaking, is doubly insidious because it is invisible. This happens because sometimes family members (including or other than the spouse or partner), and often society at large, condone or even participate in offensive behaviors, mostly under the guise of ‘tradition’ (often a euphemism for patriarchy).

Traditions are certainly not always about patriarchy. But, abuse is always bad and has no good excuses.

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McBain doesn’t disappoint

So, I borrowed 5 mysteries from the library, to push things along. I might have taken a week to read The Checklist Manifesto, but an Ed McBain can be devoured in a day, or half.

The pace is broken only when you read something like this:

Both of them were all silked out for the girls. Hamilton was wearing green silk pajamas and a yellow silk robe and black velvet slippers with what looked like the crest of the king of Belgians on the instep. He looked like Eddie Murphy playing Hugh Hefner.

-from Lullaby

And you pause for a minute to wonder what that would look like.

 

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Targets

Week 25 of 2011 is coming has come to an end, and I am woefully behind (25 books) my goal of 60 books this year.  I used to fare better when I was a commuter, getting 3 hours or so of mostly uninterrupted reading every day, or most days until I gave in to a fight with sleep. Now, that my commuter days seem a thing of the past, it seems easier to make book lists than actually read some. 25 books is hardly an achievement…

  1. Running with scissors
  2. Still life*
  3. American Born Chinese*
  4. The rape of Nanking*
  5. Mary, Mary*
  6. A widow’s story*
  7. Battle hymn of the tiger mother*
  8. Open*
  9. Written in blood*
  10. Half the sky**
  11. The Kid**
  12. Tiger in the kitchen
  13. The sweetness at the bottom of the pie*
  14. Poison*
  15. The girls who went away**
  16. Killer dolphin*
  17. The happiness project*
  18. The chimney sweeper’s boy*
  19. An exact replica of a figment of my imagination**
  20. River town**
  21. Sum of our days**
  22. A fatal inversion*
  23. Nickel and dimed**
  24. Two cents plain**
  25. Devotion of suspect X

but they were mostly satisfying. The breakdown indicates:

  • I found 8/25 brilliant (in that interesting shade of brown-green)
  • 14/25 were fairly good reads
  • 11/25 were memoirs
  • 3/25 were sociological analyses
  • 15 were non-fiction
  • 10 were fiction, out of them 9 mystery
I probably think about Nickel and Dimed at least once every day, usually when I am cleaning the kitchen counter, mopping the kitchen floor, vacuum cleaning the living room, or scrubbing the kitchen sink clean (in case you are wondering, there is more to my life than that, much more). Nickel and Dimed is journalist Barbara Ehrenreich’s captivating (undercover) accounts of trying to live on low-wages jobs, such as a being waitress, a nursing room aide, a Wal-Mart salesperson, and for me most notably as a house cleaner. Of course, Ehrenreich’s story is much more than just an account of how the ‘working poor’ get by (or not), but it also made me rethink outsourcing house cleaning.
Ehrenreich’s writes about the training videos, mandatory ‘learning’ tools  for entry level trainees, which emphasize dirt (and germ) redistribution, a sort of cosmetic rearrangement, whereby the house looks neater, and cleaner.
But germs are never mentioned in the videos provided by The Maids. Our antagonists exist entirely in the visible world – soap scum, dust, counter crud, dog hair, stains and smears – are to be attacked by damp rag or,  in hardcore cases by Dobie. We scrub only to remove impurities that might be detectable to a customer by hand or by eye; otherwise our only job is to wipe. Nothing is said about the possibility of transporting bacteria, by rag or by hand, from bathroom to kitchen, or even from one house to the next. It is the “cosmetic touches” that the videos emphasize…Fluff up all throw pillows and arrange them symetrically. Brighten up stainless steel sinks with baby oil. Leave all spice jars, shampoos, etc. with their labels facing outward. Comb out the fringes of Persian carpets with a pick. Use the vacuum cleaner to create a special, fernlike pattern in the carpets. The loose ends of toilet paper and paper towel rolls have to be given a special fold…
While this crash course on ‘how to make your house look clean if your husband’s boss is making an unscheduled appearance and you have an hour’ might make my home look very much like the seaside motel we stayed in at our last vacation, it also makes me less than eager to hire a cleaning service the next time I think I need some ‘pampering’ (not to mention the dismal hourly salary earned by these housemaids – they might not clean very well, but the vacuuming can still be back breaking).
I am still trying to create art on my living room carpets with my vacuum cleaner.
Note: I don’t think I pamper myself by hiring a house cleaner, or by gifting myself a bread machine on my birthday.

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