Book Review: The Elements of Style, by Strunk, White, and Kalman

Book Review: The Elements of Style, by Strunk, White, and Kalman

As a part of the Quinnipiac social media writing class, we were required to purchase and reference The Elements of Style (illustrated) by William Strunk , E. B. White, and Maira Kalman.

Rather than just reference this work, I read it from cover to cover. And it turned out to be an easy read, considerably more comprehensive and better than I had remembered.

Simple Rules

Simple rules emerge in clear and concise prose which never talks down to the reader. It contains all of the rules that so many people should known, and should have learned years ago. Yet these days it seems that so many people just plain don’t know.

Case in point: forming possessives. Therefore, on Page 1 the guide just says, “Form the possessive singular of nouns by adding ‘s.”

That’s it, no more.

Information about punctuation remains equally succinct. Hence on Page 15, the guide says,

“A colon tells the reader that what follows is closely related to the preceding clause. The colon has more effect than the comma, less power to separate than the semicolon, and more formality than the dash.”

Easy to follow and remember, the above two sentences tell more about colons, semicolons, and dashes than I think I learned in most of my formal education.

Furthermore, language comes across as something knowable, with rules and formal logic, instead of what English can sometimes seem like, e. g. a messy stew of words from all over the world.

Book Review: The Elements of Style, by Strunk, White, and Kalman

The Elements of Style (illustrated)

Write better.

Review: 5/5 stars.

Michael Fleischner’s SEO Made Simple, a Book Review

Michael Fleischner’s SEO Made Simple

Michael Fleischner‘s SEO Made Simple is a terrific book about search engine optimization.

Michael Fleischner's SEO Made Simple

First of all, written in a straightforward and engaging style, Mr. Fleischner makes his point: in order to dominate search engine listings, you need to make yourself known. Furthermore, you need to get your keywords into your website (but not stuffed there!) in a logical and natural manner.

Yahoo and MSN

Mr. Fleischner’s sole focus is Google but he does talk a bit about Yahoo and MSN. Furthermore, the reason to zero in on Google is made immediately apparent by the fifteenth page: Google is dominant. Here’s how the percentages of search stack up (he got his numbers from comScore for SearchEngineWatch.com)

  • Google: 43.7%
  • Yahoo: 28.8%
  • MSN: 12.8%
  • AOL: 5.9%
  • Ask: 5.4%
  • Others: 3.4%

Hence Google matters – but so do Yahoo and MSN, particularly when you consider that, combined, their share is nearly identical to Google’s. Yet don’t worry: many of the techniques Mr. Fleischner advocates will help with your placement on those search engines, too.

White Hat

White hat techniques abound, everything from adding unique keywords on each page to making sure that your page’s overall design doesn’t keep the spiders and crawlers from doing their thing. And that’s just on-site optimization. In addition, he also covers off-site optimization, e. g. writing and distributing articles, or generating press releases.

Furthermore, interestingly enough, there is little to no information on working the social media angle, e. g. Tweeting the existence of new blog posts or announcing page updates, adding similar information to one’s LinkedIn or Facebook statuses, or creating a fan page for your work (or, better yet, getting someone else to do that). However, that is, in part, a function of this being a book and not an e-book – there’s a time lag between going to press and the actual production of a paper book. Hence information is sometimes not as fresh as desired.

Instincts

However, there’s still plenty in here, for the serious web entrepreneur and the hobbyist. In addition, for someone like me, one great piece of it was some validation that I’ve got pretty good instincts when it comes to my own social media website. Oh, and if you’re paying attention – you’ll see that I just practiced two of his techniques in this very paragraph.

Dominate Google and get noticed. It’s that simple.

Rating

4/5

Andy Harris’s HTML, XHTML, and CSS All-in-One Desk Reference for Dummies, a Book Review

Andy Harris’s HTML, XHTML, and CSS All-in-One Desk Reference for Dummies

I don’t mind reviewing a book with the word “Dummies” in the title. It helped me – I’ll even admit that.

Andy Harris’s HTML, XHTML, and CSS All-in-One Desk Reference for Dummies is an interesting first book on website creation and design. As a bonus, it includes a CD with examples and code.

Andy Harris's HTML, XHTML, and CSS All-in-One Desk Reference for Dummies

Code

The book wastes no time and, by the tenth page, you’re already writing a little code. Mr. Harris’s style is to learn by doing. You read, you type, you copy what he’s written, you try it out. I found myself almost immediately altering his work to see what would happen. When the code didn’t break, or if it could be fairly readily fixed, it was a victory.

All concepts are explained, even those which may at the time seem like overkill, such as the practical differences among the .jpg, .gif and .bmp image formats. One of the earlier concepts explained is why CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) are the way to go. By the time you get to Chapter Two of the first book (the book is divided into eight mini-books), Mr. Harris is already talking about online validation. And that’s a good thing, as that by itself can help a novice web developer to fix recalcitrant code.

No Design and No SEO

There is very little about design and virtually nothing on SEO. Whether that is a pitch to bundle Sue Jenkins’s Web Design All-in-One for Dummies book with this one, I don’t know. The ploy works, though, and Amazon reports that the two books are often purchased together. I was able to jump in and create my own social media website while I was in the process of reading this book. I also must add — Mr. Harris is jazzed about what he does. And that help you to become excited about what you can do with HTML code, CSS and XML, and even JavaScript and PHP/MySQL.

Basics

Between the two of them, read this one first and learn the basics for creating your website. Then read the design book in order to give it some beauty. But lay the foundation first.

Rating

3/5

The Cluetrain Manifesto: 10th Anniversary Edition, a Book Review

The Cluetrain Manifesto: 10th Anniversary Edition

The Cluetrain Manifesto: 10th Anniversary Edition by Rick Levine, Christopher Locke, Doc Searls and David Weinberger is one of those books where you are being given a message.

That message

The Cluetrain Manifesto: 10th Anniversary Edition, a Book Review
Cover via Amazon

A pounding, relentless message.

Here’s a message.

Oh yeah, a message.

Look, a message!

You get the idea.

And what is this grand and glorious message? It is this: Markets are Conversations.

Um, okay. That’s it?

Yeah, that’s it. Oh and by the way, markets are conversations.

You just told me that.

More of it

Yeah, well, they are. Did I mention that markets are conversations? Oh and by the way, marketers and PR people are mean and nasty and awful and they and other typical business people are a vaguely (and not so vaguely) sinister stereotype whereas all of the people (who these typical business people and PR personnel are is somehow not included therein) are righteous, pure, just and true. They are individuals and deserve to be communicated with, and listened to, like all individuals.

Uniqueness?

Like, uh, I’m unique, just like everyone else?

No, no, no! You’re a unique and wonderful and special personal with marvelous gifts and enormous accuracy in understanding good and positive and possible markets, all the while making fun of typical business people who obviously not only do not have a clue but are also, let’s face it, heartless, cold, inaccurate, not listening, not worthy of the time of day or a significant study and otherwise should be ignored and forgotten, left to die on the vine.

But me, I’m a marketing type. The kind you said was evil.

So you are. Well, you’re evil, then.

Cut it out already!

You don’t even realize that I get it, this thing you are talking about, this point you keep dancing around as you keep beating the same old tired drum. Markets are conversations! Okay, great. I get that. And I have read it before although, in fairness, it was likely copying you. But after that — and after repeating this mantra at least a good 16 or so times in your book — what else have you got to say, other than that the creature known as Business as Usual needs to die? Fine, I get that, too. I’ve worked in traditional corporations, and I know that the work there can feel soul-killing. But at the same time, there are people who thrive in such environments, people who are pleasant, intelligent, respected and even, at times, hip.

Out of touch?

But, but, but, those people are supposed to be like Richard Nixon in wingtips on the beach, so cluelessly out of tune with everything that they cannot possibly be reeled in.

Reeled in, to the Cluetrain way of thinking?

And at some point, and of course I am exaggerating, but the bottom line is, the book decries business as usual and stereotypical thinking, yet it turns right around and stereotypes the very people who it claims need to change the most. That is, of course, a lovely and time-honored way to get people to listen to you and change their methodologies to your way of thinking: make fun of them and make them feel small.

Not.

Where is it going?

So somewhere along the line, Cluetrain feels like it lost its way, like it cannot figure out how to be brief. Like it cannot comprehend that talking down to people — while it criticizes business as usual for talking down to people — is more than a little ironic, and that they are not on the happy end of that irony. Like it has almost become the very thing it says not to be: a business method and rule and playbook.

The positives

There are interesting observations in here, to be sure. But they are bogged down by overlong tales of this, that and the other diverting digression. The Internet is full of people who are spouting and selling hokum! Yes, well The Refreshments said that before, and better: the world is full of stupid people. This is not, sadly, news. Oh and big business is not nimble and providing individual attention is lovely and wonderful, but hard to do if you’re very large and/or if the number of individuals you’re addressing is huge. This isn’t front-page material, either.

One nugget

There is one nugget of interest: when you’re dealing with said enormous number of individuals, you generally don’t need to address them all as individuals – you just need to work with a few and the others will see that you care about individuals. And you’re pretty much set there. This makes sense in a Groundswell (a far better book, in my opinion) sort of a way, in that there are more people online who are reading and lurking versus writing or critiquing, so a message to one can be like a message to a thousand.

All of that panning for gold, and only one nugget? Perhaps I am cynical, and I’ve clearly read far too many Internet marketing books lately for my own good, but The Cluetrain Manifesto just left me cold. Although it did, happily, remind me of this video:

2/5

Trust Agents by Chris Brogan and Julien Smith, a Book Review

Trust Agents by Chris Brogan and Julien Smith

Trust Agents by Chris Brogan and Julien Smith seems to be one of those books that everyone tells you to read when you want to go into social media marketing. And it’s that sort of a wholesale recommendation that sometimes, frankly, makes me nervous. After all, how many people have read it? Are they happy with what they’ve learned? Or is the work somehow coasting on its reputation?

Usefulness

Cover of "Trust Agents: Using the Web to ...
Cover via Amazon

But it doesn’t seem to be. Instead, I think there’s useful information in there — and it’s information that doesn’t seem to be found in the other social media books I’ve been reading lately, in particularly Cluetrain Manifesto and Groundswell. There’s more practical nuggets in here, more like in The Zen of Social Media Marketing. No great shock there – Chris Brogan is the coauthor there as well.

How so?

Too Many Delays

One of the issues with books (you know, pulp and paper books, not electronic ones) is that they take so long to be produced, and then they can become obsolete or at least out of date rather quickly. It can almost seem like buying a new car — once you get it out of the dealership, it’s depreciated a good thousand dollars. And, once many books are published, they’re suddenly obsolete.

But Trust Agents doesn’t care. Instead, it forges ahead with practical, specific tips. If they go out of fashion or become obsolete, head to the website for an update. Or, if you prefer pulp and paper, there’s always a later edition.

Basic Principles

The gist of the book consists of six basic principles:

  1. Make Your Own Game – e. g., break the mold and experiment with new methods. This means you’re going to occasionally — gasp! — fail. So you do. Get over it. Pick yourself up and try something else. Safety and sameness aren’t really going to get you anywhere. At least, nowhere good.
  2. One of Us – be one of the people. Be humble and be accessible. This means blogging. It means letting your hair down every now and then when you tweet. Of course it doesn’t mean foolish oversharing or putting out things that are going to really harm you (“Had fun at the Crack House last night!” — uh, no)
  3. The Archimedes Effect – use leverage. That is, got something that’s working? Then use it to push and promote the next thing. Think of it like the spinoff to a sitcom. Laverne and Shirley was originally a spinoff of Happy Days. The first succcess was, absolutely, used to generate the second.

More Ideas

  1. Agent Zero – be the person in the center of the connections. This does not necessarily mean that you have to be the center of every conversation. It’s just — everyone seems to know someone (or know of someone) who is like this. Oh, talk to Gwen. She knows everyone.
  2. Human Artist – be polite and gracious to people. This may seem to be like a no-brainer to most, but, sadly, it’s not. Thank people. Tell them how much you enjoyed meeting them. Follow up. If this means creating a tickler file to remind you to contact people, then do that. True story — the first time I heard the term “tickler file” was in 1984 when I was working on Joe Biden‘s Senate Campaign. And it made sense – you followed up with voters (in those days, it was via phone call or postcard or letter, and sometimes via an in-person visit) because you knew that, even if their support was unwavering, that they had busy lives pulling them in a million different directions. This continues to be true if not far truer these days.
  3. Build an Army – e. g., as you become the person in the middle of all of the connections, and the one who does the followups, your time will start to fill up. You’re going to need help, so link up with other people who can be social hubs and follow-uppers. This does not relieve you from thanking people, but it does help you to continue to keep in touch.

Details

There are, of course, a thousand little details that go along with these. The specifics include things like using Google Alerts to check on how often your name shows up online, and looking at AllTop and Technorati for blogs to follow. Grab an RSS feed so that you can get through more blogs with more speed.

But be patient. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither were trust agents. You cannot take a shortcut and metaphorically substitute canned vegetables for fresh ones here. Cultivate this and pay attention to it. Much like a garden, your hard groundwork will pay off beyond your wildest expectations.

And you can even leave your extra lettuce on my front porch.

Rating

5/5

 

The Numerati by Stephen Baker, a Book Review

The Numerati by Stephen Baker

Numerati?

The Numerati by Stephen Baker remains a fascinating work about sensors, technology, data mining and where it’s all going when it comes to our privacy.

Cover of "The Numerati"
Cover of The Numerati

 

And it ends up all about data, about collecting, refining and interpreting it. People are, well, a bunch of fish in a bowl. Or, if you prefer, hamsters on a wheel. We are lab rats, we are subjects, we are collections of bit streams. We are … information.

And the kicker is that, put together enough things about us, and conclusions can suddenly be drawn.

Conclusions

Let’s say I go to the same grocery store every week (not a stretch – I really do). And I buy fish every single week. What if I buy, say, tuna steaks 70% of the time, and swordfish the other 30%? Am I automatically a tuna lover? Or am I simply scared to try something new? Or am I getting to the fishmonger when everything else is sold out?

And what happens if a coupon is introduced into the mix? Does my tuna consumption go up to 80% if you give me $1 off per pound? However, that’s not too much of a victory, seeing as I normally buy it anyway. Will a $1 off coupon entice me to buy more pricey salmon instead?

Ideas But Not Gospel

The data gives its interpreters (Baker refers to them as the Numerati, which sounds a tad like Illuminati and perhaps he means that) ideas. However, it’s not really a slam-dunk. Or, at least, not yet. Hence essentially the Numerati bucket you. So I am a tuna buyer. And I am a sometime swordfish buyer. And I am also a Caucasian woman, in her (ahem) fifties, married, no children, living in Boston.

So far, so good. And when the data are all herded together, when the bits and bytes of our lives are aggregated, this may very well have a lot to say about us. Because it might be a predictor of how I’ll vote in the next election. Or perhaps it will show how I’d use a dating site if I should ever need one in the future. Or it may even tell whether I’m likely to become a terrorist.

Border Collies and Data Goats

The data matters, but, to my mind (and to Baker’s as well, it seems), there are not only herds of data but there are also nagging outliers. And these constitute the Border Collies amidst all the data goats. Perhaps I am buying tuna to feed to a cat. Or maybe I buy it with the intention of eating it to improve my health but, alas, never get to it and it goes to waste every single week.

So consider this case: a sensor is placed into a senior citizen’s bed, to determine whether that person is getting up in the morning. And, let’s say we also collect weight data. Because a sudden dramatic rise in weight would indicate the possible onset of congestive heart failure. And let’s say the senior in question is a woman who weighs 150 pounds. Your own mother, maybe. Day one: 150 pounds. Day two: 158 pounds. And then day three: 346 pounds. Day four: 410 pounds. Golly, is Mom really that sick?

Maybe Mom’s dog is 8 pounds. Okay, that explains day two. But what about days three and four? Maybe Mom’s got a boyfriend.

Or maybe she’s got two.

Messy Feelings

When I had the occasion to meet Stephen Baker, we had the opportunity to talk a bit about these squishy, messy feelings. Sure, our hearts are in the right place. And we want Mom to be safe and healthy, and we can’t be there. She might live in a warmer climate, and we cannot (or won’t) leave our cooler climes. Or the job opportunities may be no good there for us. For whatever reason, we are here and she is there. So we want to be aware, and caring and all, but in our desire to gather information and protect her, what else are we learning?

If Mom is competent, and single, and protecting herself from STDs, we truly have no business knowing who she spends her evening hours with. Yet this technology makes this possible.

And if we have any sense of the future at all, we have to think to ourselves: what happens when I become Mom’s age? Will my bedroom and toileting habits potentially become a part of this huge bit/byte hamster wheel lab rat canary in a coal mine data stream? You betcha.

Worrisome?

It is often said that only people who have something to worry about in their private lives are the ones who are worried. Everyone else should be fine, blithely giving up their warts and preferences, their virtues and secrets, to all who ask.

I say bull. I like my secrets. And I like my hidden life. And I’ll be damned if I give it up, even in the name of health, diet, voting, national security or even love.

A terrific read. I highly recommend this book.

Rating

5/5

 

Sue Jenkins’s Web Design All-in-One for Dummies, a Book Review

Sue Jenkins’s Web Design All-in-One for Dummies

For Dummies Book Display

Sue Jenkins’s Web Design All-in-One for Dummies is a decent resource for improving your website and even for starting your own web development business. It’s chockful of ideas but one glaring omission was a CD. It would have made some sense and improved matters considerably if some of the concepts could have been shown not only on the page but also on a computer screen. There were references to the Dummies website but that’s only semi-helpful as urls can sometimes change (or be taken down altogether).
But that’s a fairly small quibble.
The book spends a lot of time talking about the web development business, and gives tips on how to deal with clients. This is all well and good but does not work for someone such as myself who is building a site for my own purposes but not as an entrée into a new career. Furthermore, there is something of an overreliance on Dreamweaver. For amateur web designers not interested in forking over nearly $400 for the software, those sections of the book were also eminently skippable.
Plus it helps a great deal if you already know some html and css. These are both explained but not in depth.

However, these caveats aside, the book is a helpful resource. Interesting tips abound, such as how to make a plain printing stylesheet for a page that needs separate printer formatting, such as a resume. There is even a small section on SEO but it does not cover everything that can be done. For that I would recommend Michael Fleischner‘s book.

While this book is somewhat more advanced than a beginning web development work, it struck me as being intermediate in scope — good for a lot of things, but perhaps a bit incomplete. For more advanced techniques and ideas, I’d recommend looking for works on not only design but also on usability. But this is a great place to start.

Rating

3/5

 

Robot Building for Beginners by David Cook, a Book Review

Robot Building for Beginners by David Cook

Robot Building for Beginners by David Cook is, as to be expected, a beginner’s guide to building a small working robot. In this case, the robot’s body is mainly constructed from a sandwich container, so the robot is named Sandwich. Its intended usage is to follow a line. I purchased and read this book in an effort to understand more about my colleagues and work at my employer, Neuron Robotics. I was not disappointed.

Neuron Robotics
Neuron Robotics (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In order to get Sandwich constructed, Cook walks the reader through various aspects of not only robot building and design, but also basic electrical engineering concepts. While the book is certainly no substitute for even one semester of Electrical Engineering, it does help to bring some understanding to a layman like me (in the interests of full disclosure, I majored in Philosophy in college, but my father and father-in-law are both engineers, and my husband is an engineering draftsman. I have heard some of these terms before). Terms like multimeter, capacitance and resistance are explained fairly well, and in a lively and engaging style that never talks down to the reader.

 

Cook’s good humor extends to a section showcasing equipment that he’s fried by making various mistakes. He makes it clear: be safety-conscious and budget-conscious (he provides specifics and current pricing for most of the items used and referred to) but recognize that, sometimes, stuff is just going to happen. You’ll break or burn things, or just not get them right the first time. Shrug it off and move on — it’s all a part of the learning experience.

The book is large and difficult to digest except in small bites. It is intended as a step by step guide to Sandwich’s construction, but I think a better usage — in particular for laymen who are reading the book but not actually building the ‘bot — is as a reference and resource guide.

It almost makes me want to try soldering again — but I’ll have to fight my coworkers to get to the soldering station.

Rating

3/5

 

Guerilla Marketing by Jay Conrad Levinson, a Book Review

Guerilla Marketing by Jay Conrad Levinson

Guerilla Marketing by Jay Conrad Levinson is the concept of succeeding in a small business by essentially paying attention to details and doing many things yourself. Simple ideas, perhaps, but they often seem to be missed.

Some of this may be self-evident.

English: guerilla marketing - heb עברית: שיווק...
English: guerilla marketing – heb עברית: שיווק גרילה (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After all, a small business, almost by definition, does not have a lot of capital just lying around. Often everything needs to be done by an impressively small cadre of workers. Yet we also live in a society where it appears as if many more people than ever before really just want to pay someone to take care of whatever needs to be done. Yet that is wrong-headed.

 

Levinson’s mantra is that it’s not necessary to invest a lot of money if you’re willing to instead invest time, energy, imagination and information. And, I might add, patience and attention. For a small business owner, this means having a passion about what you do. All too often, it seems, entrepreneurs get into a particular field because they cannot find a more traditional means of employment (the economy has been rather sour for the past few years) or they are chucking a traditional job but without a vision or a plan. Neither method will work for long because the entrepreneur’s heart is not in it.

What the entrepreneur needs — beyond the details of how to work a crowd or give a talk — is to be enthused and passionate about what he or she is doing or selling. Going through the motions is simply not going to cut it. Since the entrepreneur is one of the only faces of the company (and, perhaps, it’s only face), the entrepreneur has got to be jazzed to be presenting, talking, handing out business cards, performing demonstrations, writing copy, etc.

 

If the entrepreneur is excited, the prospects can be as well. All in all, an interesting read, and good for the detailed tips, but a more current version would have been a better choice.

Rating

1/5