Book Review: The Innovative University

Clayton M. Christensen and Henry Eyring. The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011. 496 pages.

In this book, aimed chiefly at university professors and administrators but also trustees, regents, and potential students, the authors attempt to identify just what’s got higher education costing more and delivering less and to suggest what can be done to fix it. They believe that looking at a university’s “institutional DNA” and changing whatever doesn’t work is the first step towards finding a solution.

That’s easier said than done, of course, and like most management/self-help books, The Innovative University is long on generalities but short on specifics. That’s to be expected, because each institution has its own unique set of circumstances that defy easy classification; if there was a specific one-size-fits-all solution that one could put in a book that could claim to set every American university aright, it would almost certainly be unworkable.

Much of the book is taken up by dual institutional histories of Harvard University and Ricks College/BYU-Idaho, two decidedly dissimilar schools whose sole commonality seems to be that each currently employs one of the authors. I accept that there are lessons to be drawn from each school’s past, but I’ve got to wonder if there are better things to be learned by looking at, say, Princeton and Santa Monica College or Yale and Henderson State College. At times the authors work in other schools as well, but none are treated with the same detail as Harvard and BYU-Idaho, which begs the question of whether the authors just went after low-hanging fruit as opposed to conducting a truly comprehensive survey of institutional histories.

The ultimate lesson of the book–that not every college should strive to be Harvard, and that Carnegie-climbing isn’t all it’s cracked up to be–is one worth hearing, as is the authors’ charge that traditional schools need to pay closer attention to what they deliver for their price to fend off competition from for-profit colleges. And the histories of both Harvard and BYU-Idaho are of genuine interest. There is also merit to their idea that some schools may want to refocus on teaching as opposed to research as well, but I’d be more interested in looking into the ultimate impact that conversion would have on both higher education and innovation in American schools. I’m certain there must be a few unintended consequences, some positive, some negative, lurking there, and I wish the authors had explored those possibilities.

All in all, it’s an interesting book and one that should inspire educators to think about just what they’re doing, but I’m not totally sold on it as a blueprint for change.

Book Review: Kosher Chinese

Michael Levy. Kosher Chinese: Living, Teaching, and Eating with China’s Other Billion. New York: Henry Holt Company, 2011. 256 pages.

China’s burgeoning middle class and growing economic power is all over the news these days. But there’s more–about a billion people more–to the large Asian country than Beijing and Shanghai. IN KOSHER CHINESE, Michael Levy shares insights into “China’s other billion” gleaned during a two-year stint as a Peace Corps volunteer teaching English at Guizhou University, an undistinguished university in a glamourless city smack dab in the middle of the Chinese version of the Great Flyover.

Levy’s a fun and insightful narrator. He does a great job of depicting the culture shock of arriving in China; a kindly grey-haired woman sitting next to him on his Beijing-Chengdu flight offers him one of her spicy chicken feet. He declines, she belches politely, and later “smiled and spit out a chicken talon.” That’s not exactly the kind of fast food you’ll see riding SEPTA. He walks the fine line between devolving into out-and-out farce when describing some of his students’ initial difficulty with English and the Chinese twists on American popular culture and being overly serious. It helps that the book’s chock full of pop culture references that give the American reader something familiar as an occasional touchstone.

In a part of China where any Westerner is a curiosity, Levy is a double attraction; initially unsure how his hosts will react to his being Jewish, he finds it actually puts him in high regard, since both Karl Marx and Albert Einstein, as his hosts continually remind him, are Jewish. He even takes part in a student club that meets Friday nights to explore Jewish cuisine and culture.

Levy tackles many important subjects in this memoir, including US/China relations, the fish-out-of-water experience of a Peace Corps Volunteer, and life in central China, but to me the center of the book was China’s underlying identity crisis. As several of his students point out, China’s in a precarious predicament: cut loose from the “iron rice bowl” of Maoism that stifled opportunity (to put it mildly) but provided security, and unmoored in a society that now values accumulation but isn’t quite laissez faire or politically free. Though China’s more prosperous than it was, many of his students feel a great lack of something–direction, meaning–in their lives.

In KOSHER CHINESE, Levy does a good job of sharing his experiences teaching and living in central China. It’s a book that’s sure to teach all readers something. I’d particularly recommend it for those who might be interested in serving in the Peace Corps or doing a similar stint themselves, and those curious about China, even from just a business perspective.

Book Review: Selling for Dummies

Tom Hopkins. Selling for Dummies: Third Edition. Hoboken, New Jersey: Wiley, 2011. 362 pages.

If you’re in sales, you’re probably always looking for that extra edge. If you’re not, you’d probably like to know a little more about how salespeople get you to sign. In either case, Tom Hopkins’ SELLING FOR DUMMIES is a good read.

It’s a basic primer on how to sell, and how to improve your selling technique. Hopkins walks the reader through the seven-step selling cycle with pointers on how to improve each step of the way. He intersperses his instruction with stories of his own sales background, which makes for both good diversions and real-life application of his principles.

As a “For Dummies” book, the emphasis is on basic, easy-to-understand instruction rather than deep discussion. And the reader will have to do most of the work of connecting Hopkins’ advice, which is necessarily general enough to cover a broad range of sales-related fields, to his/her own work.

In general, the pointers Hopkins offers seems to be good. Much of what he says will likely not be news to experienced sellers, but one of the values of basic instruction books like this is to confirm what you already knew and give you a base for adding to it. Similarly, much of it is stuff that the average salesperson could probably figure out for themselves, given enough time. With this book, however, you’ll save a lot of time, which is probably the point.

If approached with the mindset that this is a book that will help you put in the right effort to refine your selling skills, rather than the expectation that this book will give you shortcuts to tripling your sales with no additional effort, SELLING FOR DUMMIES has a lot of value. If you are in sales, it probably won’t be the last instructional or motivational book you read, but it makes for a good start. And if you’re a consumer, it’s a nice peek into the world of salespeople.

Book Review: The Optimism Bias

Tali Sharot: The Optimism Bias: A Tour of the Irrationally Positive Brain. New York, Pantheon, 2011. 272 pages.

People always seem to expect the best, despite the odds. As Tali Sharot discusses in THE OPTIMISM BIAS, most people have unrealistically positive expectations of their future. She does a great job of summing up much of the current neuroscientific research–including her own work–on the subject of optimism, and has a life-affirming conclusion: even though we might be irrationally positive, for the most part that’s a good thing, as optimists tend to face adversity better than pessimists.

While there is a great deal of good material in the book, there is also a lot of what feels like padding. In the first chapter, there’s several pages of “intro to perception” material–including a “thatcherized” photo of a young girl that had me desperately wishing for some brain bleach–that feels like could have been summed up much more quickly.

In general, the feeling I got was that there was enough here for a great article or two, but not quite enough to justify its inflation to book length.

In addition, some of the references to current events don’t seem particularly apt. Early on, Sharot enthuses that some believe optimism might be a curiously American invention, “a by-product of Barack Obama’s imagination.” Huh? Before 2008 no one in America was optimistic? She hinges an entire chapter on “when private optimism meets public despair” on just how incredibly awesome the president is; his election apparently set an unprecedented wave of optimism sweeping over the nation despite dire economic circumstances. It gets scary when she compares listening to an Obama speech to holding a baby, patting a dog, or having sex, telling us that hearing him speak triggers a feeling called “elevation” that erases cynicism and generates hope. And the Coca Cola Corporation would like to teach the world to sing, I’m sure. Sharot doesn’t mention “I’m going to lead you to a better future, just trust me” is a theme presidents from Reagan to FDR have sounded before; its something every politician who wants to get elected is going to tell you, no matter where they stand on the political spectrum. It seems willfully naive to believe that any politician, no matter how well-packaged, is that much different from the thousands of others who have come before. Also, her use of Lance Armstrong as a case study in the power of optimism seems a bit off, in light of the doping allegations that continue to surround him. For someone who has a psychology background, Sharot seems to take an awful lot at face value.

There are some really interesting implications of Sharot’s thesis–that the human brain is conditioned to take an irrationally rosy view of the future–for the study of gambling. Mercantile or commercial casino games are, almost without exception, negative expectation games where the player is sure, over time, to lose to the house. Yet they have not lost their appeal. Could this be because most people assume that, like getting cancer or losing one’s job, sevening out is something that will happen to other people, but not to them? Intuitively, that seems like a reasonable assumption. I’d really like to see neuroscientists like Sharot look more deeply into how gambling fits in to the optimism equation.

In short, THE OPTIMISM BIAS has some genuinely thought-provoking material and offers a nice window into the author’s interesting work, but disappoints as a book. Still, I’m hopeful that future work from Sharot will be a little more on-point and help the general public better understand her work into the mechanisms of hope.

Book Review: The Jersey Shore

Jen A. Miller. The Jersey Shore: Atlantic City to Cape May. Second Edition. Woodstock, Vermont: The Countryman Press, 2011. 207 pages.

The phrase “Jersey Shore” is heard a lot these days, but mostly for the wrong reasons–shorthand for the kind of low-class self-indulgent behavior that will land you a gig on an MTV reality show or hosting a Vegas nightclub. With this book, Jen A. Miller reminds us that the real Jersey Shore is actually a pretty fun section of the Atlantic shoreline for vacations for people of all ages.

The book’s amply illustrated in color, with both historical and present-day photographs. The frontispiece is a great shot of the Trump Taj Mahal and Steel Pier just after dawn. There are also plenty of maps, something that’s helpful even in the age of GPS–it’s nice to be able to get your bearings while reading about the sights.

THE JERSEY SHORE is organized into six chapters, covering Atlantic City and Brigantine/Downbeach; Ocean City, also including Somers Point; Sea Isle City, with Strathmere; Avalon and Stone Harbor; The Wildwoods; and Cape May. Each has plenty of information about the highlights in lodging, dining, shopping, nightlife, and beach-going.

It’s obvious that Miller has a deep love for the area she’s guiding the reader through: at several points in the book, she shares her own Jersey shore stories, going back to her childhood, which helps the reader understand Miller’s depth of knowledge and appreciate where she’s coming from. This isn’t someone who got handed an assignment, did some Google Fu, and tuned in a manuscript; the Jersey Shore has been a big part of Miller’s life for years. That makes for a friendly, conversational guidebook that will point readers to many of the area’s gems.

The best part about this guide is that it makes the South Jersey Shore, which is a bit un-user-friendly, accessible to anyone. Because it doesn’t have the same level of visitation as Vegas, there are far fewer places to get good information about the area’s amenities for tourists. THE JERSEY SHORE provides plenty of advice on where to stay–even how to best contact realtors for towns where house rentals make more sense than motels or hotels–and every other aspect of a vacation down the shore. There are even very helpful itineraries for each city, and plenty of options for people in every age range.

If you want to spend some time down the shore this summer and don’t have decades of family tradition and insider knowledge to draw on, THE JERSEY SHORE will make you feel like an old-timer.

Book Review: The Big Roads

Earl Swift. The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighway. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011. 384 pages.

Even if you don’t use it every day, the interstate highway system affects your life every day. Odds are the food that you eat traveled at least part-way on the national super-roads, as did most of the consumer goods you use. So highways are an important part of American life. But most of us have only the haziest ideas of their origins. Based on what we’ve read at strategic rest stops, we might know that Eisenhower had something to do with it, but that’s about it.

In THE BIG ROADS, Earl Swift addresses that knowledge gap. He’s written a very readable but still detailed history of America’s highway system. Starting in the 1890s with Carl Graham Fisher, a once-household name who today is almost completely obscure, Swift traces the development of private, state, and federal road-building initiatives that culminated in the construction of the interstate highway system, starting in the 1950s.

In place of Eisenhower (who Swift almost goes out of his way to downplay at times), Swift identifies a triad of engineers as the real father of the American interstate: Thomas “The Chief” MacDonald, Herbert Sinclair Fairbank, and Frank Turner. Together, they shepherded the system that would become the interstates through several administrations.

In addition to charting the careers of those who built the interstates, Swift also discusses those who opposed the big roads. He’s strongest in this regard when talking about men like Joe Wiles, who rightfully objected to an interstate spur that was planned to carve through the heart of his neighborhood, and weakest when recalling Lewis Mumford, whose criticisms seem more aesthetic than practical. The author himself admits that a uniform highway system is actually safer and quicker than the alternative, and having the same assortment of fast food choices at each rest stop is, in my own opinion, a small price to pay for having the ability to easily drive coast to coast in three days.

This is a very good book, particularly for anyone who’s driven the interstates and been curious about just where they came from.

Book Review: The 100 Best Affordable Vacations

Jane Woolbridge and Larry Bleiberg. The 100 Best Affordable Vacations. Washington, DC: National Geographic, 2011. 288 pages.

Right now, most people who like to travel are looking at stretching their budget as far as they can, so a book about affordable travel destinations is a practical idea. This book is divided into four chapters: Americana, Into the Wild, Quest for Knowledge, and Body and Soul, each of which features vacations based around the chapter’s theme. So Americana includes something called the Corn Palace Festival in Mitchell, South Dakota, and the National Hollerin’ Contest, held each year in Spivey’s Corner, North Carolina. There’s also a lot of advice on where to get the best barbecue. The other chapters focus on nature, education, and a mix of horizon expanding and pampering.

There are a ton of good ideas for offbeat vacations in this book that would probably never occur to you (I know they wouldn’t occur to me) if you hadn’t read it. Even if you’re not planning to travel anytime soon, this book is a good reminder of the real diversity we have in the good old USA–there is tons of stuff to do right here, and a lot of it won’t break the bank.

Of course, this isn’t a complete guide to vacations away from the beach or ski slopes, but it’s a great start for planning what might be an unusual, unforgettable vacation.

Book Review: Ugly Beauty

Ruth Brandon. Ugly Beauty: Helena Rubinstein, L’Oreal, and the Blemished History of Looking Good. New York: Harper, 2011. 304 pages.

Ugly Beauty looks at two historic icons of the beauty industry and, through them, the underside of the selling of glamor. Helena Rubinstein became a brand name in the early 20th century thanks to her line of skin-care products; Eugene Schueller isn’t so well known, but the company he founded and guided to success, L’Oreal, is today a hair and cosmetics giant.

It’s tough to dislike a book that borrows its title from a Thelonious Monk song. That doesn’t have much bearing on the content of the book itself, but I thought it bore mentioning.

Author Ruth Brandon follows two strands in Ugly Beauty: the sexual and the political. Often intertwined, together they tell the story of the rise of the cosmetics industry–catering to women but often controlled by men–in the 20th century. Rubinstein, the first self-made woman millionaire, created her cosmetics empire by appealing to–many would say exploiting–other women’s insecurities about their appearance. Selling creams that, in the end, had little positive effect on skin, Rubinstein nonetheless promoted herself as a disciple of science and an agent of female empowerment. Schueller, on the other hand, was a Alstacian chemist who perfected a hair dye that made him a millionaire and his company an industrial powerhouse.

While Rubinstein remained more or less apolitical for most of her life, Schueller was something of an economic, social, and political utopian, who tirelessly advocated a system blending social responsibility with authoritarian elements in the 1930s. With the Nazi occupation, and L’Oreal’s cooperation with the occupiers, as well as Schueller’s personal ties to French pro-Nazi organizations (which formed the basis of two post-war trials), Schueller’s political dalliances seem a bit ominous.

Neither of the two people Brandon profiles are exemplary, but together their life stories give her the canvas to write an interesting historical look at a variety of topics–French collaboration, women in business, and corporate succession–all through the lens of beauty. It’s a compelling, thought-provoking read.

Book review: The Meowmorphosis

Franz Kafka and Coleridge Cook. The Meowmorphosis. Philadelphia: Quirk Books, 2011. 208 pages.

Book review Friday is back! This week, I’m taking a look at a little slice of fiction that merges modern man’s sense of alienation with kittens.

Quirk Classics pioneered the literary mashup genre. Basically, you take a classic work of literature (e.g., Pride and Prejudice), add a current pop culture trope (zombies) and you get an updated version of a literary classic (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies). A few months ago I reviewed Android Karenina, and liked it, so when I saw that Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis had been Quirked, I grabbed a review copy.

It’s impossible to dislike a book that begins with the sentence “One morning, as Gregor Samsa was waking from anxious dreams, he discovered that he had been changed into an adorable kitten.” Big chunks of the book are line-by-line rewrites of the original, with “kitten” substituted for “cockroach” and references to purring, playing with string, and general cuteness replacing insect-ness.

The result is an amusing read that might make you rethink Kafka’s original, which you probably read in high school or college. Kafka didn’t exactly write an uplifting book, so much of The Meowmorphosis is pretty grim, though surrounding a cuddly kitten with all of that gloominess makes for a funny contrast. In addition to taking on The Metamorphosis, the author’s also inserted some material that seems to be based on The Trial (it’s been at least 15 years since I read the original, so I may be wrong) that at least gets kitty Gregor out of that room and interacting with other cats.

On the whole, it’s a fun, goofy book that might get you to reconnect with Kafka’s work and maybe appreciate kittens a little more, too.

Book Review: The Master Switch

Tim Wu. The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 2010. 336 pages.

This is a hard book to review because it’s really two book ideas melded into one: a history of the empire-building and empire-busting that characterized the first century of information industries, and a policy piece urging greater Internet freedom, apparently through closer government regulation of the Internet.

The history is certainly interesting, and well done. Wu traces the development of the telephone, movie, radio, and television industries from their 19th-century origins, and captures a great amount of detail about smaller players often neglected in the master narrative: Theodore Vail, a titan in his day who’s not longer a household name but who is largely responsible for the broad reach of AT&T; Henry Tuttle, who fought a court battle against AT&T to produce attachments for its telephones; Edwin Armstong, who pioneered in FM radio but whose work was suppressed by RCA; and many others. For those who believe that the telecom industry’s past is an unbroken record on innovation, Wu’s book will be a real eye-opener. He extends this analysis into the Internet era, with a particularly good rundown of the AOL Time Warner merger debacle.

The policy aspects, however, read almost like an anti-Apple and pro-Google brief that I suspect might lack some balance. Wu makes much of Google’s open vs Apple’s closed structure, and does a good job of chronicling how the initially-open Apple’s focus shifted–a change he credits to the ascendancy of Steve Jobs over Steve Wozniak. Yet Apple’s decision to produce closed, proprietary products isn’t inherently good or bad (to me); some prefer it, some don’t. Doubtless he’s right that a revanchist AT&T isn’t the best friend of the average consumer, and secret deals between the telephone giant and the government have disturbing implications for privacy. But he seems to put all of his chips on the AT&T/Apple iPhone partnership is an augur of doom, a prediction that’s already out of date, as the iPhone’s now on Verizon and will probably be coming to other carriers as well. And the recent Android malware scare might suggest that Apple’s more closed system has its benefits.

So it’s certainly an interesting book, and one I’m very glad to read, but the anti-Apple/pro-Google slant is so extreme that it makes me very leery of taking any of its policy points at face value.