Monday, 25 June 2007

More on the previous stuff, Part II

Sorry again, folks. The last time I apologised for sounding a bit negative about reading, without realising that I was doing the same thing about looking for work. My bad. I guess I have to work harder at this positive thinking thing. Thanks for your concern and wishes.

God knows how many times I've tried to write reviews. And a lot of the time I was stumped because I sensed that most of my reviews of anything (books, anime, etc.) tend to follow a similar pattern. I'm not sure what or how but I can sense the pattern repeating itself. That's why I've a number of reviews still in draft form dating back from months ago, a year ago and even further back. It makes me feel like one-phrase parrot sometimes.

Still no matter what, I seem to always find myself writing a review of something, at least in my head. And even when it's very, very difficult to do so. Most recent example: Jonathan Franzen's How To Be Alone.

It's one of the most challenging book I've ever read in my life. But my friends from Bachelor of English would probably breeze through it like a Porsche on a deserted highway.

I got to know Franzen through his third novel, The Corrections (another unsuccessful review, I've already written two drafts of it). I was fascinated by the book, which seems to discuss a lot of things gone awry in America today, while disguising itself as a "comedy" (Franzen's own word) about a Midwestern family weathering the changes in their lives. Some of the observations made in the book the include the dwindling of the marriage institution, 'hands-off' parenting (an interestingly apt description), the pervasion of technology (the new 'religion') and the influence of pharmaceutical giants in people's lives.

The Corrections was picked by Oprah Winfrey in 2001 for her Book Club selection (which only the BIGGEST book club in the world). That was actually a start of a controversy. Franzen later expressed his uneasiness at seeing the Oprah's Book Club logo on the cover of his book and he was disinvited from the Oprah's show. I didn't see what all this were about until I finished both The Corrections and How To Be Alone.

How To Be Alone is Franzen's collection of essays, which surprisingly covers many topics. He tackles topic like the postal service (Lost in the Mail), mental disease treatment (My Father's Brain, also a theme that appeared in The Corrections), maximum security prisons (Control Units) and the sex advice industry (Books In Bed) with his dry wit, imaginative trope and lots of big words (see this post).

The book itself is a mixed bag. There are parts that I enjoyed going through and there parts where I have little idea what Franzen is going on about. But one undeniable fact is the book reveals much of Franzen's soul. And despite the big, uncommon words he throws constantly at the readers, Franzen often makes interesting and poignant observations about the topic he covers.

Meet Me in St. Louis is probably the most personal essay in the book. In it Franzen recounts his brief experience as an 'Oprah author', before he got disinvited. He expresses his anxieties about several things include having to pose for a footage to be shown on Oprah and having to revisit his childhood home. It was an especially arduous emotional ordeal having to act and unearth long buried memories just for the camera.

And it slowly becomes clear to me why he didn't like being known as an Oprah author. The Corrections was intended to be a social commentary novel. Oprah, being the media and commercial force herself, is probably one of things Franzen confronts with The Corrections. I can understand how the the sight of Book Club logo would be unsettling for him. (It's on the cover of my copy.) At least that's my theory. Franzen wrote that shortly after his book was picked by Oprah there were people who came to him saying, "I like your book and I think it's wonderful that Oprah picked it," and, "I like your book and I'm so sorry Oprah picked it."

There's no spewed poison here, however. Instead of bashing Oprah or anybody, Franzen tells his side of the story in a "do you know what I mean?" kind of way but with a layered choice of words. And The Corrections is still in the Book Club's 2001 selection list.

As I've said, it wasn't an easy book. However, I really enjoyed the parts I understood. It's going back to the shelf for the moment as I wait for a suitable time to reread it. Or until I can get one of my Bachelor of English friends to read it and explain it to me.

(To be continued. The last part, insya-Allah.)

Friday, 22 June 2007

More on the previous stuff, Part I

I've got nothing much to write about these days. Aside from amassing a number of rejected job applications. I got into a knot when I got the first one, then I developed a thick skin as a shield. Now I'm taking one day at a time. Still doing my current job, and on the lookout for offers.

Anyways, now I just going to add some more thoughts that didn't make it into the last few posts. Some that got sidelined while I wrote, some are new things that popped up into mind recently.

In the last post, I mentioned that FORCED myself to finished a book, The Knowing-Doing Gap. I realised after I posted it that I sounded a bit negative.

Forced? To read? Reading?

Truth is at the time, my ability to focus was near zero. My mind was everywhere. I was unable to anchor it even for a short while. My work suffered because of that. The quality of work I delivered was below my own normal standard. That disturbed me, and caused my inability to focus to worsen.

I've learned that in a job where reading is a key skill, being able to focus is critical. Without it you can't do anything. But it could also well be a motivation problem, I'm not too sure.

I like the book, but it wasn't the kind of book that I can't stop reading. Still a pleasant read though, I didn't have much problem digesting the proposed ideas. I did however stumbled a lot during the example cases given, which were about companies and the right or wrong things that they did. Those were the ones that demanded a large bulk of my attention.

I also felt that as if I've given the impression that reading (for work or anything else) is boring. A trudging but necessary thing to do. Can there be a bigger crime against reading? Especially nowadays and here (Malaysia, to be exact), when and where reading and the love for it are slowly withering?

I attended an informal gathering of knowledge managers near Damansara recently. The moderator, an exec from Genting, mentioned that the level of communication skills (writing, in particular) among Malaysian workers as awful. The deduction: "because we don't read". Nobody can write properly if they don't read. It's not a rule, but even I can't how it can be otherwise. Good writers are almost always readers.

In Australia, even small districts have large public libraries. In Malaysia, even big town libraries are... sad (I'm actually holding back a couple of strong, unpleasant words here).

Reading should never be something forced. You can't possibly love every book ever written, but the least you can do is not make reading sound bad. I apologise to everyone whom I've given that wrong impression. I'm sorry.

The book's authors did a commendable job in giving straight answers without tossing in unnecessary business jargons. If you're unable to get it, this article based on the book itself is the next best thing, IMHO. It covers most of the ideas contained in the book, with an added dash of humour. Read, ponder, discuss, enjoy.

[ Fast Company: Why Can't We Get Anything Done? ]

(To be continued, insya-Allah.)

Thursday, 14 June 2007

The Knowing-Doing Gap

I forced myself to finish a book recently. It's for work, to help my boss prepare for next semester's syllabus.

The book is Knowing-Doing Gap: How Smart Companies Turn Knowledge into Action. The authors, Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton, observed how the high numbers of courses, MBAs, trainings and other knowledge pursuits still fail to develop remarkable, successful companies. Most of them are stuck on doing things 'the old way' while other fail utilise their knowledge due to action substitutes (things that takes place instead of action).

The ideas contained in the book are based on a breadth of research done on numerous industries and companies, both successful and unsuccessful at closing the knowing-doing gap. Some of the success stories highlighted here include GM"s Saturn Motors, design firm IDEO and clothing chain Men's Wearhouse.

Action substitutes include talk. It's amazing how in companies people are often rewarded or promoted for 'talking.' They pitch all sort of things and impress the top people into buying into them. Yet on the implementation side, it's another story. Very few people are rewarded or promoted for actually implementing something. The authors point they this is how we run our business schools today, by teaching students more on how to talk instead of how to do. As a management graduate myself, I can't agree more while feeling embarrassed at the same time. (Sometimes the truth can really sting.)

Other actions action substitutes mentioned are memory ('the old way'), measurements (that complicates instead of helping), fear and internal competition.

Most of the things covered in the book are common sense. But the most interesting point in the book for me is the argument that competition is harmful to a company. 'Old school' management thought have always praised the virtues of competitions within the company, such as between teams or departments. This could another one of those management thoughts that are drawn-out from sport analogies. Of course sports are mostly about competition. In business however, it's a different story. Dean Tjosvold, competition and cooperation expert, says, "Competition stimulates, excites, and is useful in some circumstances, but those situations do not occur frequently in organisations.” I'm no management expert or anything, but I always believe that an organisation as an interdependent system in need of cooperation, similar to the human body. Internal competition is like the subunits of the system cannibalising each other, where one wins and the rest loses (win or nothing). Anyway, it's good to see a researcher like Tjosvold putting the idea into context instead of just something what people think they ought to belief.

So what do the author recommend we do to close the knowing-doing gap? Do, and learn by doing. It's a deceptively simple advice that most people miss. Again it's common sense, but people don't always act or think sensibly.

Despite being academicians, the authors (both from Stanford) adopts a straightforward style in delivering their points. This is my second reading a book by Robert Sutton, his The No Asshole Rule being the first. I'm grouping Sutton together with Donald Norman (The Psychology of Everyday) in the category of writers-I-like-who-are-also-academicians-but-do-not-sound-like-one. Not that I hate academic writing, I just seriously wish it would be livelier in style. Thank God for academicians who write books and blogs.

Sunday, 3 June 2007

More words, part II

My previous post was triggered not by the thought of the great number of words out there that I don't know about. Rather, it was more about learning new words but not having the chance to use them and slowly over time forgetting about them. There are many times when I see a word that I know I've looked up its meaning in the dictionary but could not remember what it is.

If you pick up the current English newspapers, you'll likely to see the word "indelible" being mentioned. It appears in the news about the Election Committee's (EC) proposal to use indelible ink (and the voter's thumbprint) as a way to ensure the integrity of the election process. Indelible ink is said to be used in countries like Iran and India.

What's another word for "indelible"? "Unerasable".

I'm sad to mention that I had to recheck the word's meaning when I saw it, although I've encountered it before.

This is a Fullmetal Alchemist wallpaper I downloaded back in 2005. It has the word "indelible" on it, proof that I've came across the word already. And just after 2 years, I had flip through the dictionary again.

Getting back to the news, the use of indelible instead of unerasable is quite understandable. Indelible is a more technical and formal term, while unerasable is a more literal one.

It is also a dilemma for a writer (i.e. anybody who writes something) to choose words, either the uncommon or a common substitute. Regarding this I would like to share a short excerpt from an essay by Jonathan Franzen called Mr. Difficult (2002). I've read one of his novels and he does use tons of uncommon words. The essay's early parts are Franzen's reflection on the matter.
For a while last winter, after my third novel came out, I was getting a lot of angry mail from strangers... A few month later, one of the original senders, a Mrs. M–– in Maryland, wrote back with proof that she'd done the reading. She began by listing thirty fancy words and phrases from my novel, words like "diurnality" and "antipodes", phrases like "electro-pointillist Santa Claus faces." She then posed the dreadful question: "Who is it you are writing for? It surely could not be the average person who just enjoys a good read." And she offered this caricature of me and my presumed audience:

the elite of New York, the elite who are beautiful, thin, anorexic, neurotic, sophisticated, don't smoke, have abortions triyearly, are antiseptic, live in lofts or penthouses, this superior species of humanity who read Harper's and the The New Yorker.

The subtext seemed to be that difficulty in fiction is the tool of socially privileged readers and writers who turn up their noses at the natural pleasure of a "good read" in favor of the invidious, artificial pleasure of feeling superior to other people. To Mrs. M––, I was "a pompous snob, and a real ass-hole".

One part of me, the part that takes after my father, who admired scholars for their intellect and large vocabularies and was something of a scholar himself, wanted to call Mrs. M–– a few names in reply. But another, equally strong part of me was stricken to learn that Mrs. M–– felt excluded by my language. She sounded a bit like my mother, a life-long anti-elitist who used to get good rhetorical mileage out of the mythical "average person." My mother might have asked me if I really had to use words like "diurnality," or if I was just showing off.

(Mr. Difficult is part of Franzen's collection of essays, How To Be Alone. The very lovely Fullmetal Alchemist wallpaper above is by Tama-Neko of desktop anime (da!), who thinks indelible sounds cooler than unerasable and that it rolls off the tongue smoother.)
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