Category Archives: Nonfiction

We run into a snag with classifying nonfiction: There are clearly important works of NF that are much shorter, or much longer, than the typical image we get of a book. Yet we don’t have literature’s distinction of short story/novelette/novella/novel/*long* novel/doorstopper/lifetime achievement to back us up.

How is a reader supposed to know how long nonfiction is? Well, I just reappropriate the titles – hence a “short story” is one you can sit down and read through in one sitting, more or less, a “novella” may take 3 or 4 sessions, and a “novel” can run from anywhere between 200 to 500 pages before it gets bulky enough to merit “doorstopper” category.

An Open Letter to Don Norman: The Era of the Smartphone

Hi Mr. Norman, (if you do end up seeing this after all),

I’m reading your book The Design of Everyday Things, and I came across a particularly lucid prediction that you must’ve wrote well before ’88, the year DOET was copyrighted:

“Would you like a pocket size device that reminded you of each appointment and daily event? I would. I am waiting for the day when portable computers become small enough that I can keep one with me at all times. (…) The technology I need is available today. It’s just that the full package had never been put together, partly because the cost in today’s world would be prohibitive. But it will exist in an imperfect firm in five years, possibly in perfect form in ten.”

Well, I don’t think you would call the smartphone quite what you’re looking for, at least not in its modern incarnation. It doesn’t have a typewriter keyboard, although I do like the HTC Sense input scheme (learned after watching my friend fiddle around with his phone for about twenty seconds – I think it’s the sort of software design you’d really like for that :). And your timeframe may have been a tad optimistic.

But better late than never. The age of the truly portable computer, the smartphone, is upon us – and personally, I rather like this little do-whatever-you-need gadget. For me, to date, it’s been a remote, an internet browser, a quick and dirty sound recorder for musical ideas, a time tracker, a gateway to internet-based commerce, a time keeper, a gaming device, and oh yeah, a phone every now and then.

Now the only thing I wish it has was a unified look and feel across all its apps. But I guess I can wait 5/10/25 years for that leap.

Best wishes, you wrote an inspiring book. -Andrew

P.S., guess what I wrote this on.

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“To Engineer is Human”, by Henry Petroski

Cover of To Engineer is Human by Henry Petroski

There’s something deliciously cynical about seeing a bridge fall and saying, “History will vindicate me.”

The details, oh, the details. Why is it that we do not check them more carefully? For they can send innocent readers into the bowels of libraries, where madmen mug books, and they can send innocent citizens to their deaths in cracked airplanes and on shaky skywalks.

I’ll admit some bias in picking up this book; I’m entering college next year as an intended dual major in engineering and art, and a book subtitled “The Role of Failure in Successful Design” was just too good to pass up. I read To Engineer is Human with the intention of gleaning a few possibly life-saving lessons about the queer field I’m entering – and although Petroski’s pedigree is in civil engineering, many of his points are important across the board.

That being said, Petroski’s book may not be as suitable for the layman as he originally desired. There were several parts where I found myself saying, “I’d be lost if it weren’t for the fact that I know about all this stuff already.” The anecdotes are a bit hit-or-miss, the best one probably being the story of the Crystal Palace.

Although the effect is overall limited, the book falls into that all-too-familiar rut where the science outweighs the human effect on the reader. Petroski definitely relates his content all back eventually, but getting up to there is daunting.

(It doesn’t help that there’s one chapter basically ranting about how errors in computer design are going to be the bogeyman of the twenty-first century – like, why not call in some civil engineering experts to help design the system? Serious bro points lost with this Linux geek.)

A good and informative read for aspiring engineers (and maybe practising ones). Maybe a bit too intense for the average Joe.

But! For those of you who are in the civil engineering purview of interest, check out the related content links.

Slow week! — “Blink,” by Malcolm Gladwell

(Apologies are in order, reader! I slacked off a lot this week, due in no small part to having a lot of outside commitments, and the worst work day of my so-far-young life by far. Nobody who impressed business client at 15 should fall to doing door-to-door sales work at 18. I’ve learned my lesson! Onto the review.)

Cover of Malcolm Gladwell's

A smart guy? Yes. A prophetic researcher whose works change your life in under 400 pages? No. A writer who can point you on to the things that will? Definitely.

Rating: 4 / 5

I don’t make a secret of my minor obsession with books skirting the boundaries of psychology and self-help; in this regard, Robert Greene is my favorite author, and Malcolm Gladwell is pretty high up there.

That being said, anyone who opens Blink will do well to repeat this mantra to themselves:
“Gladwell’s a reporter, not a scientist,
May he no longer give cognitive bias.”

Blink is a great book, written in a fantastic style that betrays Gladwell’s long running position as a writer with the New Yorker. Beginning with the story of a falsified kouros statue that one expert just “knew” had to be fake, even after scientific testing appeared to prove that an impossibility, he builds up a fascinating series of anecdotes about the mind’s power to ‘thin-slice’ events and make snap judgments. There are a surprisingly large amount of events that we can do just as well if not better by suppressing our rational sides and acting on (trained, well-honed) animal instincts. Cool beans.

Apropos of his section on microexpressions and the work of the human lie detector and psychologist Paul Eckman is this great YouTube video I dug up. Even if you’re not interested in reading the book, this is an awesome watch:

So, Malcolm’s a great writer, and the stories he tells us are all great. Why doesn’t Blink get 5 stars?

Because chances are if you’re interested enough to read this review of it this far, you’re going to buy the damned book anyway. And you deserve to be warned that Gladwell is notorious for cherry-picking his accounts. Like I said: Gladwell is not a scientist. He oversimplifies issues.

But even a simplified version of an issue can be enchanting.


For seasoned Gladwell fans, the last link under “Related Articles” ought to give you a nice, if slightly deprecating laugh. 🙂