Sunday, October 25, 2015

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania

On May 7, 1915, the gigantic luxury ocean liner Lusitania - an engineering marvel, the fastest ship of its era - was hit by a torpedo shot from a German "U-boat" submarine. The ship had nearly completed its crossing from New York and was in sight of the Irish coast.

Eighteen minutes later, the Lusitania had sunk. 1,198 passengers and crew, including three German stowaways, were gone. Only six of the ship's 22 lifeboats had been launched. Many passengers drowned because they had put their life-jackets on wrong, so their feet waved in the air while their heads were held underwater. The passenger list included an unprecedented number of infants and children, including several large families. 764 people survived, including the ship's captain.

Before reading Erik Larson's Dead Wake, I knew nothing about this incident. I might have vaguely known that it had something to do with World War I, perhaps not even that. So for me, this book was a revelation, and I think most readers would agree.

Larson tells the story through multiple perspectives, cutting in short chapters between the ship, the U-boat, Woodrow Wilson's White House, and the top-secret British naval intelligence office. Despite the known outcome, Larson builds suspense masterfully. The first-person accounts of Lusitania passengers, and dozens of perfectly placed details, paint a very vivid picture.

I found the chapters on the German side particularly fascinating. Most of us know something about travel on the glorious ocean liners of that era, from all the Titanic lore. But I'm sure I'm not alone in knowing nothing about submarine technology of that time. The conditions on the U-boats were beyond grueling, and so dangerous that early forays were suicide missions. Reading Dead Wake, I developed an unexpected sympathy for the U-boat captain and crew, despite knowing that they were preying on undefended civilians. This is a tribute to Larson's considerable skill.

Larson is an absolute master of literary nonfiction. He established his reputation in 2003 with Devil in the White City, about a hunt for a serial killer during the Chicago Exposition of 1893. I haven't read his other books, but White City is a true page-turner, and Dead Wake is even better.

Many things about the sinking of the Lusitania remain unsolved and controversial. To those ends, Larson presents new evidence suggesting that British naval intelligence knew, and possibly even expected, the attack, but allowed it to happen to give the United States a pretext for joining the war then raging in Europe and elsewhere. According to this review, Lusitania buffs will encounter nothing new. But how many of us are Lusitania buffs? For everyone who is not, this book will be richly rewarding. [This review was originally published on wmtc.]

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Ebola: The Natural and Human History of a Deadly Virus

Ebola: The Natural and Human History of a Deadly Virus by David Quammen was a short read about the notorious microscopic killer bug from Africa. Ebola is the third book I have read about the disease, yet the first since I started writing book reviews in 2010. It was a speedy read, and I learned more from its 111 pages than from either prior title. Quammen accompanied researchers throughout central Africa and interviewed survivors of the disease. It was indeed a page-turner, but without the Hot Zone dramatics (now disproved) of patients' bodies liquefying and bleeding out. The greatest mystery is finding the host where the Ebola virus incubates. Ebola kills primates and has a high mortality rate in humans. But a virus needs a host to survive, and throughout the book Quammen in his explorations and interviews tries to determine what this host is. There is leading evidence that the host may be various species of fruit bat.

While the most famous strain of the virus was named after the Ebola River in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, there are in fact five known species of the virus. The author cites a scientific paper written by a team headed by Jonathan S. Towner from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about the five strains of Ebola that have been discovered:

"Viruses of each species have genomes that are at least 30-40% divergent from one another, a level of diversity that presumably reflects differences in the ecologic niche they occupy and in their evolutionary history."

Ebola outbreaks have occurred in Africa as far east as Uganda and as far west (and most recently) as the cluster of western nations of Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia. Each location experienced a different strain of the virus, and some strains are more deadly than others. One of the risks of working with Ebola either in hot zones where outbreaks occur, on in Ebola research, is that one might unfortunately contract the disease. Doctors and nurses are exposed to infected patients in field hospitals and scientists have contracted the disease via laboratory accidents like needle pricks. Viral researcher Kelly L. Warfield accidentally pricked herself in 2004 and during her quarantine she received the news that she had tested positive. This was suspenseful reading, and Quammen wrote of her deathly anguish. You can almost see her bloodshot eyes darting back and forth as she says:

"'If I die, I want you to learn everything you can about me'--everything they could about Ebola virus disease, she meant. 'Store every sample. Analyze everything you can. Please please take something away from this if I die. I want you to learn.'"

Fortunately Warfield received a false positive, which was not unusual in certain Ebola tests.

For a brief and balanced analysis of Ebola from its first outbreak in the mid-seventies up till its latest outbreak in western Africa, I recommend David Quammen's Ebola. In it he debunked Richard Preston's The Hot Zone, but at the same time was grateful for it. That earlier book scared so many people that scientists received a sizable bump in grants to research the disease.

Monday, October 5, 2015

QR Codes Kill Kittens: How to Alienate Customers, Dishearten Employees, and Drive Your Business into the Ground

QR Codes Kill Kittens: How to Alienate Customers, Dishearten Employees, and Drive Your Business into the Ground by Scott Stratten is a small book outlining pitfalls of information technology in modern marketing. Its title is based on the QR (quick response) code that seems to be applied, more often than not thoughtlessly, to every advertisement--or even to individual bananas, as Stratten shows. The author maintains by the title that QR codes do not work. The enhanced features QR codes supposedly provide are rarely exploited. One should not link a QR code back to a company's website, for example. Stratten regularly tested codes to discover that far too many of them led to dead links. Stratten wrote this book to tell us "what not to do--with advice that's easy to digest on mistakes that are easy to avoid" and QR codes are the number one marketing mistake.

The book was formatted to feature a screen capture or photo on each page, illustrating a marketing ploy that went horribly wrong, often to the company's ignorance or late discovery. I nodded in recognition of the "kiosk circle of shun", so named to describe kiosks shaped like squares, often found in the middle of walking corridors in malls. These are ostensibly four-sided counters, where customers can be greeted in all directions. The "kiosk circle of shun" however describes the unfortunate situation customers encounter when all of the kiosk's employees have their backs to the public, and they are engaged in a conversation among themselves. Nothing has sent a clearer message to me that a company doesn't want my business than the "kiosk circle of shun". 

Stratten also offers advice to presenters, who risk losing their audience by what they put on screen. Who hasn't sat through a slide show and nodded off because the slide presentation is only text? And too much of it? The author advises in "A Kitten Has Died During Your Presentation If..." the following kitten-killer points:
  • Everything you say is on the screen
  • You need two hands to count the number of bullet points on a slide
  • You bring in all your bullet points at once and pretend people don't read ahead
When I read those points I laughed, and then I cried in memory of all the kittens who had died at presentations I had attended. 

Stratten filled his 196-page book with many other marketing disasters, such as: those who schedule E-mails and then never think to cancel them (especially if the E-mail followed a national tragedy); disgruntled employees blogging about their company dissatisfaction (and later firing); QR codes posted in subways or on the sides of trucks or being towed on banners by airplanes; and snickery Twitter announcements such as the one announcing the newest album by Susan Boyle #susanalbumparty.

The Right to be Cold: One Woman's Story of Protecting Her Culture, the Arctic and the Whole Planet

by Sheila Watt-Cloutier

Watt-Cloutier, an Inuit woman born in Kuujjuaq, Nunavik (formerly Northern Quebec), tells her story of growing up in the Arctic and being raised by her maternal grandmother. At age 10, she is sent to Nova Scotia for further schooling, followed by residential high school in Churchill, Manitoba.

In narrating her story, Watt-Cloutier paints an informative picture of her Inuit community. She relates her memories of family and school life; explains the supportive economic role of the American military stationed at Fort Chimo during WWII, and how the assassination of John F. Kennedy deeply affected the community; and uncovers the little-known truth behind the disappearance of the Inuits’ husky dog teams. After years away at high school, she returns home to work as an assistant at the local health clinic, and later as a school guidance counsellor. Here she observes signs of social breakdown – violence, alcohol and drug abuse, even suicide – and endeavours to set up support systems for Inuit students struggling with such issues.

Watt-Cloutier also shares a number of refreshing insights on such critical matters as global warming, economic development of aboriginal communities, and stewardship of the Arctic. She looks beyond the short-term economic gains from natural resource development, to the long-term effects of climate change. Through her work on climate change (for which she was co-nominated along with Al Gore for the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize) as well as through writing this book, Watt-Cloutier has made a significant contribution to the discourse on global warming.

Find this book in the Mississauga Library System on-line catalogue. 

This book review was first published in The Business Bridge, the eNewsletter of the Central Library Sciences and Business Department. To read the latest book reviews on business and related topics, why not sign up for The Business Bridge, at:

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World

I received Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World by Vicki Myron with Bret Witter as a Christmas present about six years ago, yet in spite of it being on my Christmas gift list, I hadn't read it until now. That is not unusual; all too often I buy or acquire books but don't read them until years later. And so I waited all this time to read such a touching story about the kitten who was tossed into a library dropbox in Spencer, Iowa one frigid January evening in 1988. Myron, the director of the Spencer Public Library, found the freezing kitten the following morning and nursed him back to health. I would say that most stories that are tear-jerkers open the reader's waterworks at the end, with the final pages a sobfest. While that was certainly true with Dewey, I was getting pretty misty-eyed from the very first chapter, when Myron described first seeing the kitten huddled in the dropbox. It broke my heart that someone could be so cruel to a kitten, and to hear how Dewey suffered. The dropbox wasn't even protected from the cold, as the slot had been wedged open, leaving Dewey exposed to the cold all night, as well as all the books falling through it and onto him.

After a meeting with the library board, the decision was made that Dewey could remain at the library. He would be the resident cat, which was not unheard of in libraries. A precondition of Dewey becoming the resident cat was for him to be declawed, which Myron did not write about. I only found out about it on the Spencer Library's website. I can understand how any mention of declawing could backfire on Myron's selfless benevolence. Myron wrote of Dewey's antics in the library and I laughed as I read about Dewey's fondness for empty tissue boxes, especially getting inside and wedging his head through the narrow plastic slit. Dewey loved to engage with library patrons and be petted and carried around. While there was some opposition to having a cat in a public library, the overwhelming response was positive. As a library employee myself, I took great pleasure in reading about Dewey's adventures among the stacks, riding around book carts and sitting and playing with patrons. I could picture it happening at my own library. Without anyone's foresight, Dewey ended up bringing the people of Spencer closer together. This little cat over the course of his nineteen years in the library got people talking to one another, and not just library patrons but the whole city. Dewey became the unofficial symbol of Spencer and as word spread about the friendly cat, the library received more visitors. Visitors came from across the US to see Dewey, and Myron had to cope with the ongoing demands for news stories in print and on television. Reporters and TV crews regularly ran stories on Dewey, and thankfully I was able to find many of the TV features on YouTube, including one from Japan.

In spite of the increase in local library visits that Dewey generated, this did not translate to an increase in circulation, as Myron cited the statistics that were typical of libraries in the twenty-first century:

"After the technology update of 1994, people began using the library differently. Before computers, if a student was assigned a report on monkeys, she checked out every book we had on monkeys. Now she did research online and checked out one book. Patron visits to the Spencer Library rose between 1994 and 2006, but only a third as many books were checked out. In 1987, when Dewey arrived [sic], it was common for the book drop to overflow with books. We haven't had a full drop box in a decade. Our most popular items for checkout are classic movies on DVD--the local video stores don't carry them--and video games."

Thus the library became more of a social hub with Dewey as its focus. People who had never set foot in the library started to come, and Dewey made the less frequent visitors come back more often. Dewey did not just tell the story of a library cat. Myron wrote of Spencer's economic troubles as well as her own personal and health issues which made the value Dewey provided for Spencer and its citizens all the more poignant. You felt for Myron as she battled breast cancer and you were heartbroken at the end when Dewey's health failed him at the age of nineteen. Shortly before Dewey's death, Myron described him:

"He was like a shadow moving among the guests, often unnoticed but somehow there at the end of a patron's hand each time someone reached to pet him."

A shadow that is still felt in the Spencer Library today. Dewey was a rapid read yet contained two errors, embarrassingly both on the same page: "I had sneaked a peak" and "Ten minutes late the crowd was shouting" (very easy to miss).

My heart was touched by Dewey, as well as by the life of the woman who saved him.