Monday, April 27, 2020

Review: You're Not Listening: What You're Missing and Why It Matters

You're Not Listening: What You're Missing and Why It Matters You're Not Listening: What You're Missing and Why It Matters by Kate Murphy
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Listening is hard, and in my quest to be a better listener I’m always looking for information to both understand how I can do better, and to understand dynamics between me and other other people. Kate Murphy’s book is a great resource both for the advice it provides and the insights it leads you too.

One of the reasons listening is hard is that much of what we learn as a culture about “good conversation” and engagement emphasizes witty responses, self promotion and superficial gestures. She cites the Algonquin Round Table as an early example of a model of conversation dynamics that are entirely based on putting people down -- albeit humorously -- rather than building people up and connecting. Many of the “active listening” techniques that are popular are focused on reactions and gestures rather than the mindset of connecting with people. While techniques can encourage us to reframe how we think, they are not enough, and while superficial gestures can give the initial appearance of connection, people generally figure it out later on.

Murphy has some recurring themes in the book, including that how well you listen is, at least in part, tied to how comfortable and secure you are in a situation; it takes confidence to pause to respond and build on what others say, rather than pushing your own agenda, and that listening requires self awareness -- of how present you are, of the kinds of interactions that you tend to tune out on, and of whether you have followed up enough to have a chance at understanding what someone is saying.

Good listening isn’t just about politeness. It forms the basis of good personal, business, and community, relationships. These in turn can help you be successful whether you are a spouse, friend, manager, sales person, or advocate in your community. Murphy closes with a discussion of when to stop listening. Since listening well takes a lot of energy, we can’t always listen, and that’s OK as long as you are intentional and transparent. And there are some circumstances where it’s clear that a dialog won’t happen, even after you’ve given it a reasonable chance. But listening is key to understanding each other and building relationships, so it is important to not always give up simply out of impatience. Listening is hard, and we can all do better, and the effort can be worth it.

You’re Not Listening is a an actionable guide to the various aspects of why listening is valuable, what makes for better listening, and for understanding how you interactions with others can be better, both through self-understanding and empathy. The insights from the book can help you be a better spouse, friend, and neighbor, and perhaps even improve the quality of interactions on social media.

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Monday, April 20, 2020

Review: What's Your Pronoun?: Beyond He and She

What's Your Pronoun?: Beyond He and She What's Your Pronoun?: Beyond He and She by Dennis Baron
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What’s Your Pronoun is the story of the role of pronouns own grammar and society. Using the right pronoun can be challenging and is important. At the very least using the wrong pronoun can mislead or or offend. But simply if all you see to do is to apply rules to avoid offense, you’ll likely fail more often than you’d like. Baron’s book gives you the tools to go deeper and understand the evolution or pronoun usage in the English Language, so that you can better understand why pronouns are important, and also that the debate has been long running,.

As an occasional writer, who is also a bit of a grammar geek, I’ve often lamented that there is not good neutral third person singular pronoun; I’d like to have a third person form that is well understood, not awkward to read, which doesn’t imply the gender of a person. From Baron’s book I learned that this has been an issue since at least the 1780s (according to the written record he found -- perhaps longer). The grammar geek in me also appreciated Baron explaining concepts in the context of language ( “gender” means “kind,” having nothing direct to do with gender identification) and the differences in how grammarians and linguists view issues like these.

The implications of pronouns extend beyond being imprecise or offensive to interpretation of laws. “He” was sometimes taken to be generic, but also used to say “just men” -- for example: “a law saying that he shall be punished who...”, the same logic, when applied to voting rights for women, didn’t stick. and other, larger, social issues, (for example, the difference between “gender neutral” and “non-binary” usage). Placing the discussion in the context of history and the present day, Baron explores the approaches people have tried in order to achieve some sort of “third person singular” without assuming a gender.

In the end, it seems that “they” has a long track record of being the neutral pronoun of choice for English speakers, much as “you” migrated from being plural to plural and singular. I hope that my saying that doesn't lead you to believe that you don’t need to read the book. The journey the book takes you on is educational and also entertaining. I recommend it to anyone who is curious about how language evolves and relates to society, or just if you are curious about how pronouns are, and could be used.

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Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Review: Underground: A Human History of the Worlds Beneath Our Feet

Underground: A Human History of the Worlds Beneath Our Feet Underground: A Human History of the Worlds Beneath Our Feet by Will Hunt
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As someone who was fascinated by, NYC subway tunnels while I was a subway commuter in high school, I appreciated the theme of the book, and that it had much of a chapter balanced around the story of a famous NYC Subway graffiti artist. The challenge I had with this book is that I wasn’t sure what to expect. Based on the cover text, I was expecting a discussion of the history with humans’ relationship to the dark unground spaces, with tendrils to mythology, history and science. In the end, there was that, albeit woven into a travel journal, where the mix of journal and background that varies throughout. I found the first chapter a bit slow going, but the book seemed to flow better for me as I progressed.


The book starts off as more travel log than history. The first chapter, being more travel memoir than history almost has me putting the book down. But in chapter 2 the book became what the title promised: history of human obsession with dark, foreboding places, even in the face of our desire to seek light safety.

The history, science and mythology are woven into stories of the authors travels to obscure and not so obscure places, and the personal touch emphasized the connection that these places have to humans, so in the end the person story made for a more engaging read for me when it was in the right balance.

The book has un-captioned photos scattered through out it, which added to a sense of discovery, but at times I wished they were captioned so that I could quickly find out what they were. I was a bit more frustrated that the end notes only sometimes explained the photo rather than simply being a photo credit.

The issues I had with the book are mostly matters of personal preference though. Overall, this is an interesting read; you do need to start it with the right expectations (or even none) for the best experience. While the book was not as compelling as I had hoped, but was a great way to contemplate what the underground means to us, and to the extent it got me thinking philosophically about the contradictions inherent in our obsession with the underground, it was worth the effort for me.

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Monday, April 13, 2020

Review: Successful Aging: A Neuroscientist Explores the Power and Potential of Our Lives

Successful Aging: A Neuroscientist Explores the Power and Potential of Our Lives Successful Aging: A Neuroscientist Explores the Power and Potential of Our Lives by Daniel J. Levitin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

You will get old, and you will (eventually )die. While some things are beyond our ability to control, there are things  we can influence so that the amount of time  (or at least the proportion of time) you live with a good quality of life (a concept captured by The World Health Organization HALE (Healthy Life Expectancy measure) is greater. Successful Aging is a guide to how to change our personalities and response to our environments to make this happen.

The key idea in the book is that your life can be thought of as having a “health span” at the start, and a “disease span” at the end, and successful aging is when the ratio of health span to disease span is highest. Levitin uses the acronym COACH --  Curiosity, Openness, Associations, Conscientiousness, and Healthy practices -- to describe the principles that can help you to achieve this: .

The book is divided into 3 parts. The first is a tour through the science of how we learn, feel, and interact, with a focus on how these change over time. I found this section to have a lot of information that helped me to understand day-to-day dynamics with people, independent of concerns of aging.

The second part of the book is about the science behind, and the choices we make with respect to diet, exercise, and sleep. These are the things we most can control, or at least influence, and this section will give you some context for evaluating whether something you hear about has any basis in science or is simply hype. In many cases, simple changes can have a great impact.

The third section of the book tackles the science behind longevity, discussing research into the limits of human life, and how cognitive function can change as we age, and how to keep your brain active. Levitin makes the case that continuing to  learn new skills that you enjoy, keeping active, and maintaining social connections will do far more for youy cognitive health than simply doing “brain training” puzzles (though if you like doing puzzles, go for it). The section and the book end with a chapter that ties the ideas in the book together, and provides some practical advice for the inevitable end of life issues we will all have to address as our abilities change.

Successful Aging is an engaging, easy to read, book that is rooted in science but weaves in stories about people who have led active productive lives in their 70’s, 80’s, 90’s a beyond, and also includes the occasional -- well placed -- witty aside from the author.

This is a book that will be useful to most everyone, whether you are thinking of your own life, of the life of a loved one, and want to understand how to help the latter portions of life better.



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Review: Kill Reply All: A Modern Guide to Online Etiquette, from Social Media to Work to Love

Kill Reply All: A Modern Guide to Online Etiquette, from Social Media to Work to Love Kill Reply All: A Modern Guide to Online Etiquette, from Social Media to Work to Love by Victoria Turk
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As someone who has been a user of the internet for a long time I was curious about what Kill Reply All would say, but skeptical that I’d learn a lot. I was wrong. Kill Reply All is a laugh-out-loud-entertaining review of how to communicate which covers many of the styles of interaction we use (phone, text, email, chat, social media) . You’ll learn to think about when certain media are appropriate (or not), and how best to use a medium that is new to you. For example, Slack might be great, but there are times when email is better. And a phone call really only works when you plan it (with a text, say). Even if you don’t agree with the recipes Turk proposes, you’ll have a chance to think about the question.

Context is important: you’ll want to make different choices when interacting with colleagues, partners, friends, and the community on a social network and the chapters are structured along those lines.

Part of the fun of the book is how Turk illustrates the things not to do with examples that you may recognize -- either as things you have seen from others -- and sometimes yourself. (Note: Even if you think it’s only something others do, some self reflection is often the best approach to developing a good etiquette, as you may well fall into some bad habits.)

Though humor pervades the book, there is some really solid, sober advice here. A section at the end about call out culture is particularly worth consideration, and in fact, the last chapter on the “art of community” has concise advice about topics like how to identify Fake News and trolls, and how to distinguish bad behavior from honest interaction errors, and when it’s best to let things slide or simply walk away.

While not a perfect book (some of the suggestions didn't take some situations and professions into account, for example), it was a short fun read. You may get this book for the humor, and/or perhaps to get acquainted with how to use tools your kids, or parents use. But it you are also likely to end up thinking about how you interact with people via your devices, and whether you agree with all of Victoria Turks’ rules of etiquette or not, thinking about it is the first step to better interactions.

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Review: Weird: The Power of Being an Outsider in an Insider World

Weird: The Power of Being an Outsider in an Insider World by Olga Khazan My rating: 4 of 5 stars When ...