Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Archive for October, 2012

Everything Is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder

Posted by nliakos on October 30, 2012

by David Weinberger (Times Books/Henry Holt & Co., 2007)


I really should try harder to read books like this when they come out, instead of five years later, because the technology changes so quickly. This one still seems relevant, though, even though my whole online life has happened since its writing! Weinberger postulates three orders of order. The first order of order is physical stuff: things, animals, people (like when you clean up your room and put things where they belong). The second order of order is the metadata level (like a library card catalog–remember those? or a list of stuff; at this level, you can give your stuff more than one label, enabling you to find it more than one way. For example, a library book has a title card and one or more author and subject cards. The third order of order is the digital order, where stuff can be labeled (tagged) in infinite ways, digital stores reconfigure themselves for each shopper, and the likes of Wikipedia and Expedia collect and share information for us.

Our tendency to analyze things into pieces (“splitting”) and then group them (“lumping”) comes from Aristotle (“Aristotle lays out a task for all those who want to know their universe: Go forth and lump and split.” p 71), but we are no longer bound to the old ways of doing this, which were limited by the physical limitations of things, which cannot be in more than one place. Now, each piece of information is like a leaf that can exist simultaneously on many different trees. The result is an inherent messiness, which humans are hard-wired to organize into something that makes sense to us. Weinberger writes that everything is not miscellaneous “because we work damn hard at straightening it up.” (p. 228). But the knowledge itself “wants to be miscellaneous” (p. 7).

An aside: Weinberger has apparently had to coin the verb miscellanize, together with its corresponding participial adjective, miscellanized, in order to convey his message. I wondered how to pronounce it; where to place the stress? It isn’t in the dictionary (including online dictionaries; even Google is stumped by it and wonders if I didn’t mean to search for miscellanies). I offer my best guess here: MISC ell a nize(d). Mr. Weinberger, can you confim?


Posted in Non-fiction, Web Technology | Leave a Comment »

China Dreams: Growing Up Jewish in Tientsin

Posted by nliakos on October 20, 2012

by Isabelle Maynard (University of Iowa Press, 1996)

This memoir is one in the University of Iowa series Singular Lives, which probably explains why I couldn’t find it in the library, so I actually had to buy it (I almost never buy books I haven’t read yet!). Maynard (née Tsimmerman) is a Russian Jew whose family fled the Russian Revolution and ended up in China, in the city now known as Tianjin (where my friend Kelly is from), not too far from Beijing. She writes about her childhood  and education there. It was a whole world unknown to me (although, coincidentally, my father worked for a while in Harbin around the same time and knew some Russian émigrés there as well, including Nina Rimsky-Korsakova, whose  namesake I am. That Nina was not Jewish, though.) Being Jewish in Tientsin, like being Jewish pretty much everywhere at that time, meant dealing with slights and snubs from the other Europeans in the various concessions wrung from the Chinese, who became the servants of the interlopers who disdained them. Maynard recounts how it never occurred to her to learn to speak or understand Chinese, and how she never even knew the name of her Chinese nurse. It seems amazing today, but at the time it was pretty standard. I wondered if Kelly’s grandparents lived through that time, and whether they had any contact with these disdainful people.

The family find themselves forced to flee yet another revolution as the Communists enter the city, and Isabelle and her mother leave her father behind when they leave for California. She describes her father’s improbable escape just ahead of the Communists in the penultimate chapter. Eventually, they are reunited in San Francisco, where they begin life anew once again, and Maynard’s father promises, “Now we stay put.” And they did.

I enjoyed reading about Isabelle Maynard’s “singular life.”

Posted in Non-fiction, Recommended for ESL or EFL Learners | Leave a Comment »

The Watcher in the Pine

Posted by nliakos on October 12, 2012

by Rebecca Pawel  (Soho Press 2005)

This is classified as MYSTERY/FICTION, but it isn’t a mystery like P.D. James or Agatha Christie would write. It is billed as “A Carlos Tejada Alonso y Leon Investigation.” Pawel has written two earlier books in the series, Death of a Nationalist and Law of Return, as well as one later book, The Summer Snow. Carlos Tejada, a lieutenant in the Guardia Civil in past-Civil War Spain, also figures in these. Pawel is an American who has spent time in Spain studying flamenco; I’m not a good judge, but her knowledge of the subject matter seems profound. I learned a lot about the place and the period from reading the book, which is one reason I love (historical) fiction.

Lt. Tejada and his pregnant wife Elena arrive in the Cantabrian town of Potes (a real place, as I discovered in the Afterword), where he will be in charge of the Civil Guard. Tejada and Elena are deeply in love, but politically, they are actually on opposite sides, which gives the novel its tension. Carlos Tejada is a decent human being, a fundamentally good person, but I found myself sympathizing more with Elena, whose background as a teacher and an intellectual predisposes her to Republican ideas. (It’s kind of hard to imagine how these two fell in love, but I guess if I read the earlier books, I could find out.)

Life in Potes is a far cry from what Elena is used to, but she does her best to settle in without complaining. She tries to find ways to spend her days while her husband is dealing with shortages (of staff and materials), hostility (from the townspeople and those in his command), burglaries (of dynamite and building materials), and jealousy.  When Elena is kidnapped by the maquis (guerrillas), Lt. Tejada is forced to decide where his loyalty really lies.

A great read! I found it hard to put down.

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Why School? How Education Must Change When Learning and Information Are Everywhere

Posted by nliakos on October 12, 2012

by Will Richardson (TED eBook, 2012)

Will Richardson used to be a K-12 teacher. Before that, of course, he was a student in the American school system. Now, he is the father of two schoolchildren. He also blogs about education and educational technology.  Richardson’s premise here is that our educational system was created when knowledge was hard to get, and it was necessary for children to physically go to a building where they could be instructed by those few who had knowledge (teachers). Now that this is no longer true–now that knowledge is easily attainable from almost anywhere if one is connected, and anyone can quickly find the answers to the kinds of factual questions that used to be taught and the knowledge of which was assessed (names, dates, events, math and science facts, geography, and so on)–Richardson argues that we need to fundamentally recreate the system to reflect reality. Instead of trying to do what we already do, but better, Richardson wants us to chuck the old system and re-invent school.

Richardson explains that what we used to consider literacy is no longer enough; we now need to be multi-literate, and schools need to teach multiliteracies; but right now, most schools are too busy trying to put up firewalls to keep email, YouTube, and (God forbid) Facebook out of the classroom, so kids have the whole web of knowledge at their fingertips 24/–except for the time they are in school (when they are forbidden to use their smartphones).

He believes that education “isn’t about delivery [of knowledge to children]. . . . It’s about discovery [by children and adults together].” He advocates rethinking assessment (realizing that we all depend on the Internet to find our answers, and we should be teaching our kids to do that well (i.e., to evaluate websites) rather than continue forcing them to memorize and then regurgitate canned knowledge which in most cases they will never need, and if they do need it, they can find it easily.  He cites Yong Zhao of the University of Oregon, who believes that high-stakes testing in schools takes time and resources away from where they should be and forces teachers to teach to the tests, “[thus depriving] our children. . . of a real education.” He wants to “rethink teaching”, saying that “learning, unlearning, and relearning” are the essential skills of the future (and perhaps the present). He advocates that teachers share freely what they know. He believes we need to teach students to “talk to strangers” online (safely, of course!) because it is through connecting with others that we enhance our knowledge of the world. (Students in Richardson’s high school literature class studying The Secret Life of Bees had the opportunity to interact with the author while they were reading the novel.) Teachers should be “master learners,” modeling for students the behaviors we hope they will acquire. And kids should produce work that matters (“real work for real audiences”) in place of endless worksheets that end up in the recycle bin. It should be the kids who drive learning–not their teachers. (I always wonder, though: students know what they think they should learn, but there is so much that they don’t even know exists, or why they would need to know it. Can we really assume that they can figure this out on their own?)

Richardson ends by saying, “Our kids, and we ourselves, can now carry the sum of human knowledge around in our pockets. . . . We can have teachers and classrooms with us wherever we go.” He calls on us to educate ourselves about connected learning and to try to convince others of its importance.

Posted in Education, Non-fiction, Recommended for ESL or EFL Learners, Web Technology | 3 Comments »

The Fight for English: How Language Pundits Ate, Shot, and Left

Posted by nliakos on October 11, 2012

By David Crystal (Oxford University Press 2006)

Having thoroughly enjoyed Lynne Truss’ Eats, Shoots and Leaves, I was astonished to discover that The Fight for English is in some ways a long rant against Truss’ supposed “punditry”.  Although he insists that he likes her, he devoted the Prologue and four entire chapters to explaining why Truss and people like her are wrong to aggressively defend language “rules”. He also refers to her (or her book) elsewhere and writes in the last paragraph of the final chapter, “I wrote this book to explain why English usage became such an issue—why, in short, so many millions bought Eats, Shoots and Leaves.”

I thought the popularity of Truss’ book was due to the fact that it is a very funny book. Silly me! Apparently most of those who bought it were hoping to fix their faulty punctuation and by doing so to shore up their confidence in their ability to write their native language. Well, maybe. But if I wanted to improve my punctuation skill, Truss’ book is not where I would have sought enlightenment.

Crystal also faults Truss for being too militant (for taking a “zero-tolerance approach to punctuation”). He writes in the Prologue, “That is the language of crime prevention and political extremism. Are we really comfortable with the recommendation that we should all become linguistic fundamentalists?” Does he really have so little sense of humor as that? Does he think Truss was using her book to marshal the troops for punctuation reform—turning her readers into guerrillas armed with spray paint?

The attacks on one of my favorite books aside, I found it easy to agree with Crystal’s basic point, which is that languages, including English, change; that there is always someone who complains about how other people use the language; and that these complainers often base their complaints on spurious information. I found the historical approach interesting; I reviewed some things I learned in my History of English class in graduate school and learned some new things, such as that the rule distinguishing will and shall no more holds true for British English than it does for American English. The history of punctuation marks was also interesting, as was the chapter on spelling. I never knew the historical reasons for the failure to establish an English Academy to set language standards (Every time someone attempted to do so, another political upheaval prevented it.) I really enjoyed the whole book! I just don’t understand why he came down so hard on poor Lynne Truss.

PS Did anyone else notice that Lynne Truss avoids the Oxford comma in the title of her book, but David Crystal uses it in the subtitle to his? (This is probably the kind of hair-splitting that Crystal wishes we would all avoid.)

Posted in Non-fiction | Leave a Comment »

How Proust Can Change Your Life

Posted by nliakos on October 6, 2012

by Alain de Botton (Random House/Vintage 1997)

I usually finish the books I start, but I didn’t make it through this one. Is it because I have never read In Search of Lost Time, or anything else by Proust? But surely, many of the people who made this a bestseller had not read Proust, either. They thought it was worth reading. According to the New York Times Book Review, it is “a self-help manual for the intelligent person.” Maybe I am not intelligent enough? I didn’t find it particularly helpful (it isn’t clear how it is supposed to help, or what it is supposed to help with) or interesting. I frequently encourage my students to stop reading any book that they find too difficult or that simply does not interest them (in the case of pleasure reading, that is); it was time to take my own advice. As I tell my students, life is too short to read bad books. This isn’t a bad book, but it just wasn’t for me–not now, anyway. So about halfway through, I gave up and returned it.

Perhaps you thought that I like everything I read, since I usually have only nice things to say about the books I’ve read. It’s true that I like most of what I read, but not everything. I considered not posting about this book since I didn’t finish it, but then I decided to post anyway–to give you a sense of what does not float my literary boat.

Posted in Non-fiction | Leave a Comment »