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Content by Robert J. Crawford
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Reviews Written by
Robert J. Crawford (Balmette Talloires, France)

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Everything American History Book
Everything American History Book
by Oberlin
Edition: Paperback
22 used & new from CDN$ 1.83

4.0 out of 5 stars A bit too patriotic, yes, but my daughter likes it!, Feb. 20 2004
This book covers the basic basics of American history, both in fact and with some interpretation. While I tire of the ga-ga patriotism on every page - the author repeatedly says that US history is the most interesting ever, that the country is the most accomplished, etc., etc. - it is constantly stimulating for us and a source of discussion in my household.
Oddly, the book does not indicate what level of reading it was written for. I wanted to find something comprehensive and solid yet entertaining, which was NOT to be found in the children's section so I had to go to the adult history section. It was for my daughter, who is in third grade in Europe, and who needs to learn some American history because we are moving to the US. It is truly ideal for that. However, I believe that it is far much more advanced readers, prehaps middle school. Also, though written in 2001, it was not updated for 9/11 in spite of some coverage of terrorism. It has been nice to see that my daughter is skeptical of the incessant claims of American exceptionalism, which comes out in our discussions of the book.
Recommended, though it verges on jingoism and blind patriotism that in the end appears parochial to me.

Emotional Design: Why We Love (Or Hate) Everyday Things
Emotional Design: Why We Love (Or Hate) Everyday Things
by Don Norman
Edition: Hardcover
7 used & new from CDN$ 26.36

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars very useful perspective, though digresses a bit too often, Feb. 18 2004
This is a very good book about the many levels of design. Often, you can get something that works well, but is ugly; conversely, you can get something that looks great but doesn't really work. The great service of this book is that Prof. Norman creates a useful framework to categorise and analyse these things. It is thoughtful, often funny, and in my experience covers the field accurately and concisely.
First, according to Norman, there is the behavioral level, that is, how the thing functions. This is how many people, in particular Americans, approach the objects that they buy: if it works and is durable yet not expensive, it is a good deal. Second, there is the visceral level, which is the (perhaps innate and genetically programmed) reaction that a buyer had to the appearence of something bought. It is about beauty, the appearence of safety, and the like. Third, there is the reflective level, which includes the personal associations of the consumer as well as the intended subtexts that a designer might attempt to incorporate. THe latter two are more favored by the design-loving cultural elites in continental Europe, and they are prepared to pay a lot for them as well as discard still-usable goods for the latest fashion. It is an entirely different mentality and linked to personal pleasure and a sense of emotional satisfaction that come from these objects, which blur the line of design and art.
While all products reflect these three levels, more often than not one is favored by any given firm in the product design process. Target goes for level one with its cheap and useful products, but with Graves' and Starck's designer goods is attempting to appraoch the other levels. With its ironic and - let's admit it - obscure products of the Droog design Collective, the reflective level is favored; for example, its very ugly "dresser" (actually separate drawers lashed together with heavy straps by the consumer) is supposed to remind us of moving and even nomadic life. While I enjoy the idea of these Droog subtexts, I would never want to have one in my house. In contrast, Alessi combines beauty and reflection in some of the best household objects currently manufactured, but they don't always work well; for example, the Starck lemon juicer is beautiful and evokes almost a haunting feeling in some, but you can't really juice lemons with it; or take the (functionally more successful) Mami pots series: they are gently curved, evoking the clay pots of the Italian grandmother's hearth (or even a breast) and yet are simply beautiful. You can't do much better than this in terms of quick analysis with a clear framework. There are also some flashes of humor in the book, which helps it to move along.
Nonetheless, there are many long sections where Norman goes off on tangents that I found uninteresting. Sure, he speculates on innumerable product design possibilities, which may or may not interest (many of them felt like filler to me). But what really bored me was the academic tone of the book, which skims along psych research and in particular cognitive psych. While is makes it more academic, in my opinion it addes nothing to the design insights in the book, which was why I for one bought it.
Many of the reviewers here were hard on Norman for his last two chapters on robotics and artificial intelligence in computers. These are not my field, but I think that his choice to include them is legitimate in that both areas will certainly become a frontier of design in the near future. I got some useful opinions out of it in that I thought about how frustrating computers are and how they could be better.
Recommended with these caveats in mind. I learned a lot from this book.

by Vladimir Nabokov
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 17.96
28 used & new from CDN$ 8.20

4.0 out of 5 stars youthful illusion, Feb. 12 2004
This review is from: Glory (Paperback)
This is a very good novel about the fantasies of youth, i.e. misplaced idealism, mixed with the dangers inherent in the revolutionary upheavals of the early 20C. It is a slice of history, which may interest or may not. As the novel is translated from the original Russian, it lacks the extraordinary narrative texture that the Nab's original English novels exhibit.

The Path to the Spiders' Nest
The Path to the Spiders' Nest
by Italo Calvino
Edition: Hardcover
15 used & new from CDN$ 5.20

5.0 out of 5 stars at the margins of the resistance: funny, sad, chaotic, Feb. 11 2004
This is an absolutely wonderful novel about a boy who wanders into the Italian resistance during WWII. There, he finds a hilarious panoplie of characters, from lice-infested peasant marxists to the hyper-intellectual young co-leader. Each person is rendered so vividly - and if you have ever lived in Italy you recognise the types - that the novel is extremely dense and pleasureful.
The plot is fairly simple: a young boy from a chaotic household has to flee after being arrested for stealing a pistol from his sister's German "client." (He was trying to impress the ineffectual drunks in his usual hangout, a smoky and dilapidated bar, and then gets caught up in the resistance.) All the time, he is lonely and desperately seeking a special companion, someone to love and take care of him. It is not a heroic tale, but one about what it was really like in the resistance: more about the pauses and boredom, the bad food and promiscuity, the strange thoughts by men risking their lives for murky as well as clear-cut causes - the socialist revolution or to rid their countryside of the Germans who steal their cows. This is a new and fascinating view, told with great wit and style. This is the first novel I read in Italian, and its vocabulary is difficult but wonderfully succinct and clear.
Warmly recommended.

Empires of Light: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse, and the Race to Electrify the World
Empires of Light: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse, and the Race to Electrify the World
by Jill Jonnes
Edition: Hardcover
10 used & new from CDN$ 7.09

3.0 out of 5 stars a disappointment, but very interesting as well, Feb. 2 2004
This is a fairly good book on three pioneers of the electrical revolution: Edison, Tesla, and Westinghouse. Only the last was a true industrialist, while the first two were inventors who more or less failed to capture the full value of what they created. The field of battle was was between direct current (DC) and alternating current (AC). Jonnes also attempts to evoke the era - one of huge transition, both technological and social/organizational - in which they lived.
The best things about this book are in overview and context. I learned about the business environment and practices during the Gilded era, which was indeed extremely interesting and useful for my current project. This is well researched and clearly written. Moreover, what each of these individuals faced - their frustrations, ambitions, motivations, and methods - are also examined in some detail. While I know a lot about Edison from previous research, this was a gold mine of info on his principal competitors, Westinghouse and Tesla, whose technology (AC) won the battle to become the standard of wire-furnsihed electric power. Edison was an incredible inventor, but his obstinancy for sticking to what he created led him to bypass AC for the less workable DC (this is a pattern that led him to many strategic mistakes thru his career). Tesla was an eccentric visionary and loner, who made great discoveries early on only to get mired into megalomanaical schemes during the last decades of his life. Westinghouse was a true "broker of innovation" - finding and using talent with great efficiacy - and in many ways a brilliant pioneer of corporate and industrial organization; he was also a decent man with populist ideals in a time of ruthless exploitation and manipulation.
However, this book failed for me on many counts. First, it did not go into enough technological detail for me - I still don't understand the difference between AC and DC from a scientific point of view. Second, I did not get much of a feeling for a story (billed on the cover as a titanic struggle) that was unfolding: instead, the book jumped around and got bogged down in certian details, such as the grizzly chapter on Edison's promotion of an AC-current electric chair (to scare the public) or the maneuvering that preceeded the COlumbian Exposition.
Third, and this is a very personal perception, I did not like the way that Jonnes writes. While her book certainly was not as dry or lifeless as so many academic studies tend to be, I felt she was straining to write as eloquently as McCullough or Schama, which I believe is beyond her talent. This criticism may come from writing 101, but she uses too many adjectives. Waves of panic are "ungulating," electicity is "ethereal," etc., each time failing to find "le mot juste." I really don't mean to be a snob about this - she is a better historian than I ever could be - but her writing style irritated me several times on every page.
Recommended with these caveats in mind.

Shrek Early Math
Shrek Early Math

2.0 out of 5 stars game with little math, Jan. 31 2004
This review is from: Shrek Early Math (CD-ROM)
My son, 4, likes to play this because you can get shrek to jump around in a dungeon. OK, he is chasing quarters and dimes, the numbers add up, etc., but the math is not central to what he is doing and can be ignored. (It is ignored.) Must it be that way for one so young? I think it is too easy to say, well, I guess there is no alternative to just playing. THere must be a more imaginative way to stimulate a young mind in math. I believe this fails - there is no sense of ongoing game, no true link to math concepts.
Not recommended.

At Work with Thomas Edison: 10 Business Lessons from America's Greatest Inventor
At Work with Thomas Edison: 10 Business Lessons from America's Greatest Inventor
by Blaine McCormick
Edition: Paperback
19 used & new from CDN$ 0.01

2.0 out of 5 stars unoriginal, with far less about edison than you would expect, Jan. 30 2004
This is one of those business books that are dime a dozen: some business prof finds an appropriate metaphor or vehicle and builds an entire book around it while expounding on whatever pet subject he wishes to promote. One or two like this are OK, but when you read them day in and day out like I have to, the formula wears very very thin indeed.
I was looking for information on Thomas Edison, in particular how he built teams and what his leadership style was. While there are some useful nuggets of information in this book, I was very disappointed at how little about Edison there was to find and how much about what McCormick calls post-corporate America (i.e. the old "new economy") and other rather banal ideas. Moreover, absolutely nothing that the author says is footnoted or documented in any way, so the reader never knows what he is basing his conclusions or assertions on. That is not second rate - it is third rate scholarship and unacceptable from any academic yardstick. Finally, the farther you get into the book, the less there is about Edison and the more off-hand advice and even simple (very conservative) economic ideology there is. I have seen similar ideas many times before and was not interested in hearing them reiterated in what I consider a less clearly written style and a less cogent manner. FInally, the examples that he trots out are already badly dated: Enron, for example, is touted as a superior post-corporate company because of the way it manages "creative" employees (I don't think he meant accounting); so is Sun Microsystems and many other info-econ companies that have seen near-catastrophic declines since the publication date of 2001 - it is so superficial that you have to wonder if there was any real thought behind any of it beyond the usual business-school shlock! As such, this is conventional wisdom from BEFORE the stock market bubble burst.
Not recommended if you are a serious reader of biz lit or economics. There are far, far better sources on Edison that are more clearly written and whose scholarship is impeccable, such as Israel's masterful book (Edison A Life of Invention). The material on the new economy is so outdated - hense so appallingly misguided - that it is almost embarassing, and this is only two years after publication.

Menlo Park Reminscences: Vols. I, II, III
Menlo Park Reminscences: Vols. I, II, III
by Francis Jehl
Edition: Paperback

4.0 out of 5 stars hagiography, but of historical importance, Jan. 28 2004
This is a massive memoire by one of Edison's "boys," that is, one of the elite experimenters that America's greatest inventor included at the center of his creative teams. Jehl is totally admiring of the man, indeed loves him as a father and remains as awestruck as the day he met "the inventor of the phonograph."
At its best, the book makes the period come alive with personal details of Edison's greatest achievements and a sense of how he did what he did. (It was largely through outstanding teams, an uncanny sense of intuition in technological questions, and harder work than anyone dared imagine.) In addition, the reader gets to know the characters who worked in the Menlo Park facility, which was the prototype of all modern industrial research labs and phenomenally productive. You get technical details as well, which underline the achievements in all their complexity and audacity.
However, there is no doubt that this is an authorised version: Jehl wrote it as a living exhibit in the reconstructed Menlo lab that Henry Ford financed. As such, it is totally fawning over Edison and glosses over or entirely ignores anything unpleasant about him, which severely restricts its accuracy and usefulness to the casual reader. FOr a blanced view, the reader must seek the excellent bios that regularly appear.
This book is for scholars - a must as all the bios I know are based in large part on it - but also for history buffs and Edison lovers. (I read it for a writing project and found many details that I will use.) It is also splendidly written. Warmly recommended with these caveats in mind.

Creating Value by Design: Thoughts & Facts
Creating Value by Design: Thoughts & Facts
by Stefano Marzano
Edition: Paperback
12 used & new from CDN$ 2.50

4.0 out of 5 stars a must for all students of design, Jan. 10 2004
This is a compendium of brief essays by the Director of Design at Philips. It is extremely interesting as a showcase for his thoughtfulness and what goes into the design process at Philips, from electronic minaturization and city lighting to ethical concerns about the environment and even the concerns of developing countries and their (unprofitable) needs. I was truly rivetted by much of it, and saw certain areas of design I knew in new ways while learning about others. The Second volume, FACTS, consists largely of beautiful photos of his group's products. At the very least, I will consider Philips products first now, as I know some of what is behind them.
I would recommend this book to any design student: Philips is not just about profit, but about much much more. Marzano really gets you to think about both how and why products are designed the way that they are and, by extension, we can imagine the type of society and culture that we want in the future. It is a tour de force. As thought, this is truly outstanding and stimulates the appetite for further inquiry - just what a student needs.
That being said, there are many things that the book is not, about which potential readers should know. Marzano does not go into how his design group fits into Philips - as I understand it, it is autonomous from the business units and must sell its ideas to them and I suspect that lots of his ideas get lost in the brutal translation to profit-seeking manufactures. Morover, Marzano evokes rather than systematially develops or analyses his concepts; this is not necessarily a criticism, but the reader will have to seek them elsewhere for more consistent treatment. Finally, Marzano also gets into the public policy arena - arguing that designers should try to communicate their progressive ideas to politicians - which I found a worthy thought but rather vague and even naive on his part.
Warmly recommended.

by Jean Paul Sartre
Edition: Paperback
25 used & new from CDN$ 0.24

3 of 6 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars awful book, awful people, silly message, Dec 10 2003
This review is from: Nausea (Paperback)
Sartre built a career as a misanthropic intellectual. His characters (and his analyses) brim with the most total alienation imaginable, with the strong dose of narcissism that comes along with slef-declared geniuses. The protagonist of this novel is a bored scholar, researching an ancestor. He is incapable of love and in the grips of a depression and loathing that fill him with waves of nausea. That is it in this novel! There is meaning in nothing. The only thing I felt reading about these sick people was nausea - and boredom.
In writing a negative review of such a famous novel, I know there will be lots who disagree, but I am sick of novels like this that are held up by a national cultural establishment as "great," i.e. enhancing their international image, rather than works that should be read more openly and naively. You can tell the difference in so many media: look at Michelangelo and you immediately feel his genius, whereas if you fail to perceive the artistic "value" of many contemporary works, you are condemned as lacking the finesse and brains to see what you are told to see.
Not recommended. This is the ideal novel for a high school student to read ostentatiously, exhibiting some kind of "depth."

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