Saturday, March 14, 2015

Better than Before - Book Review

Better than Before by Gretchen Rubin

Sometimes, I am a sucker for punishment, I have never been fond of self help book but I have been thinking of my habits for a while. When I saw this title at BloggingforBooks, I decided it might have some interesting information and might help me. It does but you have to put up with the author along the way.

Gretchen Rubin reminds me of a cross between an over eager puppy and a second rate business consultant. Once she takes hold of a subject, it seems to become her life. So far, that is her problem (and her husband's - I feel a lot of pity for the poor guy!). But she also wants to spread her new revelation to everyone around her. Habits! Habits are good! Habits will solve your problems. Let's push exercise and diet on her sister, house organization on a friend, etc. Any conversation seems ripe for her to introduce a new habit on someone (ok, there is a bias here, since conversations that are not about the book's subject would not be included in the text, but...). Her sheer enthusiasm can be exhausting.

She also takes things to extreme. She is nice enough to answer reader email and comments on her blog. However, she decided to save time by cutting out salutations and closings on her messages (no saying "hi" or signing off since those must take all of 10 seconds and are a habit for most adults). When someone mentions that her emails sound unfriendly this way, she argues through that the time saved is more important (saving all of 5 seconds per message at the risk of sounding brusque).

She also reminds of the worst kind of business consultant: her book is filled with "The 4 Tendencies", "The Essential 7", "The 4 Pillars ", etc. She also likes pompous titles: "Strategy of Monitoring" or "Strategy of Convenience". I haven't seen so many lists of all encompassing principles since the last management seminar I went to. Some are explained in the book but I suspect others were introduced in her previous works and just tossed in casually.

However, there is also good advice in the text (but don't get pressured by Gretchen to see things her way - she acknowledges that different things work for different people but she also tries to push her on the reader). I enjoyed her analysis of rewards, where the motivation for the habit becomes the rewards and not the result of the new behaviour, and of loopholes (guilty as charged!).

Overall, when I think back on this book, I remember my annoyance with the author and not the good parts of the book. I do want to go back and reread specific parts. Would I recommend it? I am not sure. I am not going to read another book on habits, though.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

This is What You Just Put in Your Mouth

Another review for BloggingForBooks

This Is What You Just Put in Your Mouth? From Eggnog to Beef Jerky, the Surprising Secrets by Patrick Di Justo 

A friend once forswore gelatin forever when she found out it was made from animal carcasses (like a good friend, I decided not to tell her how broth is made, as that would have too much of a negative impact on her life). She is the type of person who would hate this book.

Based on the author's Wired column, the book consists of many very short chapters, where the main ingredients of a food or other product are shown, discussed and analysed. Sometimes, there is a short background section as well. The writing is always casual and fun. The author's sense of humour runs along similar lines to mine, so I really enjoyed myself.

For me, it was interesting to understand more about about ingredients such as taurine or calcium phosphate. Yes, many of those are also used in other products (such as Plaster of Paris) but there is a huge difference between eating a food grade ingredient and Plaster of Paris. Of course, not everyone agrees with this view and they may have very different reactions to this book. The author himself has a very balanced view, showing why an ingredient is used but, at the same time, often not hiding his reaction of "I am eating this?"

Part of it may be that we are very distant from our own food. Not that long ago, most cooks would know what gelatin and broth is made of. Using every part of an animal or plant was also seen as positive. Today, we seem to think that any part of an animal that isn't a steak shouldn't be eaten or that all plants should be pretty to be eaten. For some reason, it seems more reasonable when the little old lady makes tortilla the traditional way (with lye) than to read that an industrial plant uses the same chemical.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Work in Progress - New Weave/Braid Pattern

I haven't posted any work in progress in a while, since I was too busy churning out new work for the exposition last weekend. It is hard to stop to take photos when I am switching from one project to the next non stop.

See what I mean? Yup, all those bits and pieces were projects underway.

Now that that is over (for now!), I decided to take up the textile techniques again. These pieces take a long time to finish and it just wasn't the best use of the limited time before the show.

First, some new information. Much to my dismay, I figured out I have been using the wrong terminology. My bracelets aren't woven, since there isn't a warp and a weft. They are braided: the strands alternate between acting as a warp and as weft. Sorry.

Now, to this week's project. My previous braided pieces were all balanced: one over, one under. I experimented with different braids (single, double, triple), with forming and with multiple metals but it was always balanced. My new experiment was to do a tweed style pattern, where one wire goes over two, under one, creating a diagonal pattern. In a tweed cloth, this direction is usually reversed at points, creating diamond patterns.

I wasn't sure it was going to work out well in a braid, though. But I decided to forge ahead. Keeping track of each wire was not easy and the edges were a real issue, since the wires kept coming from alternate directions (you can see how the edge isn't as neat in the photo). But, overall, it did work pretty well. The tweed pattern is clearly visible despite the edge issues. I didn't reverse direction this time, that is for the next project.


Curiously, I like the back as much as the front, since the pattern seems to be more delicate. It shows under two, over one. I may just form the bracelet back to front. Or maybe I should do it the traditional way, since it is the first tweed sample. What do you think?

Next steps: anneal, form the bracelet and fuse the edges. Hopefully, without melting or cracking the wires!

Book Review - The Reputation Economy

A BloggingForBooks post.

The Reputation Economy, by Michael Fertik and David Thompson

In a few words, the book discusses how large scale data analysis will be able to correlate everything about you online, seriously impacting what jobs, dates and perks you get in real life. If you are a loyal customer, you may get attractive offers to switch but none once you are already a client. However, a disloyal customer will be identified as such and will either consistently get good offers (to hold him) or the company will just let him go to whoever wants to woo this hard client. The same thing will happen in all spheres of life, from finance (credit offers and interest) to dating websites. Everyone will be looking at huge data banks and specific scores (dependability, social, financial and whatever metric a company decides to create in order to identify the best clients for their strategy) so that the individual will not even be able to tell why they are treated the way they are.

Overall, I enjoyed the book more than I expected. I found the descriptions of how this kind of data analysis actually works fascinating and I developed a deeper understanding of how scoring works. However, I think the authors severely overstate their case. They rely on how one single action might have huge impact on your score, which could radically change your interest rate or job offer. That overlooks the fact that it isn't in the lender's best interest to radically change interest rates at the drop of a pin (the client won't be happy and that will affect the lender's reputation right back, since this works both way).

Also, it is important to remember that no one is perfect, no matter how perfect their "life curation" is. If we know everything about everyone, we will have to come to terms with the fact that everyone rants sometimes, everyone farts, everyone does somethings they shouldn't. It is already possible to see this: things that would be absolutely shocking 30 years ago (when it was much easier to keep some things quiet) are now more of a "they shouldn't have done it." My own prediction is that it will soon be easy to identify (using the same methods and processing power the authors describe) over curated profiles, which will raise the "what are they hiding?" flag. Anyone who has conducted a job interview has seen the too slick, too good candidate which sets off the hinky meter, even if we can't place our finger on the problem.

It is pretty obvious why the authors take such a radical stance on this: Fetik is the CEO of a company that does online reputation management - each reader that gets shocked into fear is a potential client. So I decided to take the worst case scenario with a grain of salt.

Monday, February 23, 2015

What makes an artist?

This post began as a Facebook status. It sparked some interesting conversations and I wanted to elaborate further.

It started with this image:

(sorry, I do not know the original artist; I found it floating on FB.
If you know the photographer or captioner, please let me know)

You know the old cliche about artists as free souls, beating to their own drums, etc, etc, etc. Of course the artist is the one that doesn't conform to the rules while the others are just boring, conventional people who will have boring conventional lives.

No. If you ask me which one of those little girls will be the dancer, I would answer the one that is concentrating, paying attention to the teacher and practicing her little heart out to attain perfection. The one who loves dancing so much she is willing to give up almost anything to dance, who will train every day until her feet bleed.

This is what a dancer's feet look like. This isn't someone who is just goofing off, this is someone who is willing to hurt a lot for her art.

Who will be an author? The one who not only observes people and lives, who has great creative ideas for a story and has something to say about both, but, mainly, the one who sits down and writes. Their first story will be terrible, their second story will be terrible and so on. But if she practices her craft, if she is willing to read over her work (painful as it may be) and evaluate it objectively, if she is open to advice and weighs that advice, she will improve.

Which one will be a painter? The one who works all day at a job to pay her bills but gets home and sits down in front of the easel for a solid 4 or 5 hours of work, dreaming of the day she can support herself with her art. The one who can hear 50 "nos" but take it as a learning experience, to improve her form of expression.

It isn't enough to "have something to say" in order to be artist. It is also necessary to be able to say it. That requires practice and hard work to develop your skills. Goofing off doesn't make an artist, it gets you kicked out of a serious class.

Pure technique also doesn't make an artist, it makes a craftsman. Artistry is combining what your soul wants to share with the skills to make it come true.

Artists may be introverts or extroverts, the class clown or the bookworm. The class clown may become a lawyer, a doctor or an artist. In the end, it is about having something to communicating and working hard to express it, understanding a chosen medium so it can share the message, knowing the rules well enough to break them for a cause and observing the world to extract that one new thing, large or small, that no one had noticed before.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

A Little Art from Unexpected Places

We often see a great divide between scientists and artists - one is cold and distant, the other passionate. They see the world in different, irreconcilable ways.

At this point someone will mention how Einstein played the violin. He did - quite badly according to some (others thought he was a good player, so I will leave it to the gentle readers to come to their own conclusions). I want to share a different scientist who was also an artist.

Richard Feynman - physicist, Nobel prize winner, elected one of the top 10 scientists of all time, lifelong curious guy - was also a bongo player (pretty well known fact) and a semi amateur visual artist. His views on beauty and art was simple:

I have a friend who’s an artist and has sometimes taken a view which I don’t agree with very well. He’ll hold up a flower and say “look how beautiful it is,” and I’ll agree. Then he says “I as an artist can see how beautiful this is but you as a scientist take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing,” and I think that he’s kind of nutty. First of all, the beauty that he sees is available to other people and to me too, I believe…

I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time, I see much more about the flower than he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside, which also have a beauty. I mean it’s not just beauty at this dimension, at one centimeter; there’s also beauty at smaller dimensions, the inner structure, also the processes. The fact that the colors in the flower evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting; it means that insects can see the color. It adds a question: does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms? Why is it aesthetic? All kinds of interesting questions which the science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.

You decide if he was any good.

One minute line drawing

And some more here:

Book Review - Provence, 1970

This is a review for Blogging For Books.

Provence, 1970 is about a group of influential American cooks and food critics (Julia Child, Richard Olney, James Beard, Judith Jones and M.F.K. Fisher) travelling to Provence in 1970 and how this ended up changing food culture in the USA. The author is MFK Fisher's great nephew and uses her diary as a basis for the book.

I wanted to like this book. I wanted to like it a lot. I wanted it to show me how cooking changed in the early 70s and how this group of people did it. I wanted to see cooking through their eyes and experience

I did not like it, though. The book assumes the reader knows who all these people are. Forgive my lack of food history, but I only knew Julia Child and only because of the movie Julie and Julia. So the whole narrative is structured around people I didn't know and mentioning all their important, influential works I had never heard of. 

From the blurb in the back, I knew something huge was supposed to be happening but I had no idea what. I felt I was reading about several people I did not know, without much character detail, talking and complaining.

Not only that, but I also have to ding some points for the writing itself. I am not particular about writing. I appreciate a well crafted sentence but I won't notice awkward ones until they get very awkward. For example, a paragraph tells us about roasting chicken and serving it. Midway through, "it" starts to refer to the pasta the chicken will be served with. Colour me confused when the author mentions boiling "it"!

If the reader is already well acquainted with these people, I am sure they will think this a fascinating behind the scenes look. For me, it just dragged. On the bright side, several of the cook books mentioned are now in my to-read list!