Thursday, October 30, 2008

Obama Articles from Time Magazine

Couple of really interesting articles from the October 20 issue of Time Magazine...

The first is essentially the cover story by David Von Drehle titled "The Limits of Race". With a subtitle of "For White Working Class, Obama Rises on Empty Wallets", it's a very well written and interesting look at voters in the key swing state of Missouri and how the economy appears to be trumping everything for voters looking at their Presidential selection.

Also in this issue is a commentary written by Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the bestseller "Eat, Pray, Love" titled "A Family Divided by Obama and McCain". Gilbert is an Obama supporter and the piece is about her relationship with her McCain supporting father.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

"How Tough Could it Be?" & "The Sweet Season" by Austin Murphy

There were a couple of interesting things from the latest Sports Illustrated... one of them written by an author I've come across in the past.

In his magazine story "Coming Attractions", senior writer Austin Murphy wrote about Penn State football and their upcoming game against Ohio State (in which they've now beaten the Buckeyes). It was good writing and reminded me of the two books I've read by him...
Austin Murphy Books

In "How Tough Could It Be?: The Trials and Errors of a Sportswriter Turned Stay-at-Home Dad", Murphy recounts his time on sabbatical from SI. Taking over the household management and primary (during the work day at a minimum) responsibility of their two kids provided Murphy a chance to see just how tough the whole stay at home parent thing is.

Overall, it's a very funny book and also gives good insights into what Murphy went through. Definitely recommended for those with kids, particularly if one of the parents has this stay at home role.

Several years prior to this, Murphy wrote "The Sweet Season: A Sportswriter Rediscovers Football, Family, and a Bit of Faith at Minnesota's St. John's University" about his time spent with Coach John Gagliardi and the small-college St. John's football team.

An excellent book for those who love college football, particularly a smaller and "less corporate" version of college football that isn't necessarily leading towards the bigger NFL stage, but rather just towards the love of the game.

Other Stuff from Oct 27 Sports Illustrated

Not related to Murphy at all, but two other things I found to be of note from this issue...

"The Good Ol' Days" about the recent DVD release of the of TV show "Sports Night" that ran for 45 episodes from 1999-2000.

"Friday Night Futbol" by SI writer Melissa Segura about a high-level Mexican high school football team that travels to Texas (and has come in the past) to play their American counterparts. The story is especially interesting for any reader familiar with the fervor around big time high school football in Texas.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

"Traffic" by Tom Vanderbilt

It likely wouldn't have been predicted to sell well, but "Traffic" by frequent magazine writer Tom Vanderbilt reached into the Top Ten on the New York Times Best Seller list. Having just finished reading it, I can see why as it had some very interesting points to make about something that affects many people each and every day... traffic.

Some of those insights are below:

- Late merging onto a freeway: Rather than simply being selfish driving, it's the most efficient usage of the road as it means the largest portion of available space is being utilized for the longest period of time.

- Cell phone usage: While it probably is safer to use a hands-free device than to not, the safest thing to do is not use a cell phone at all while driving. The reason has to do with attention... studies of driver's gaze while on a cell phone shows them picking a fixed point directly in front of them and keeping focus there. This is as opposed to experienced (i.e. good) drivers not talking on a cell phone who are continually scanning the path ahead to adjust to any obstacles that may arise.

- We miss seeing things we don't expect: Accidents often result from outliers in traffic that they're not used to seeing. Cars frequently collide with police and emergency responders parked alongside the road and a main reason why is that the drivers of those cars don't expect to see anything parked there and when they do, the processing of that information often isn't done quickly enough to take the right course of action driving.

- Roundabouts and shared spaces are safer for all: It's really two different but related points... roundabouts are a good thing in traffic because they slow everybody down and make them be aware of their surroundings (similar idea to not talking on a cell phone) and shared space between cars and pedestrians accomplishes the same end. The alternative to this is simple four-way stops and lights... where accidents often occur when people don't expect either the other car or pedestrian to enter "their space".

Related to both of these concepts is the idea that the most dangerous roads are the most boring ones. Rumble strips on highways help reduce this danger, but what occurs is driving are lulled into a false sense of security (or sleep) and reduce their attention... which is never good on the road.

There's definitely some other interesting concepts (around commute times, parking and building more roads, for instance) out of the book and even though it's a bit dry (it is an entire book about traffic for gosh sakes), I'd definitely recommend it to anyone interested in the concepts.

"For Those About to Write" by Dave Bidini

It's I'm sure an extremely little known book in the U.S., but I just finished reading "For Those About to Write" from Canadian writer Dave Bidini.

Written for the young adult (teen) audience, it's a very fast read (an hour or two) and contains Bidini's autobiographical path into a writing profession. There's not much in the way of narrative to the book, but there are some interesting things aspiring writers can take away. Below are a few of them...

- Reach out to writers: Bidini knew from a young age he wanted to be a writer and worked towards that... by both spending time writing (outside of school) and sending letters to accomplished writers asking for advice. While not everyone knows that they want to do from a young age (or even middle age), Bidini deserves admiration for his efforts toward his goal of being a writer (and his path reminded me of that Stephen King described is his autobiographical book "On Writing").

- Just write: I suppose this ties into the above notion, but one point that Bidini makes (which also happened to be made in King's book) is the best way to become a good writer is to just write. As he puts it, writing garbage is ok to do, it gives you practice and if you write enough, the good stuff will eventually come out. When it does and you're "feeling it", that's great and you of course keep writing the good stuff, but even when you're not writing well, it's still good to keep putting pen to paper so to speak.

It's not necessarily a criticism, but one thing that I found interesting in the book was that at the end, Bidini comments about writing on the Internet and while he doesn't disparage it, he's also doesn't seem terribly impressed with it as a medium. Where this seems odd to me is that earlier in the book he recommends writers put out "fanzines"... short newsletters on a given topic. To me, this would be in essence a different version of a blog. Both simply mean that the aspiring writer is doing the best thing towards their goal... writing.

All in all, I think "For Those About to Write" is pretty decent book. I came across it because Bidini does a fair amount of hockey writing (I'll be reading his "Tropic of Hockey" book soon) and wanted to see what he had to say about the process of writing itself. If that's a goal of someone, they probably couldn't go wrong taking an hour or two out of their day to see his thoughts on the topic.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Various & Sundry Parenting Articles

A bit of a hodgepodge list, but featured below are links to some various articles I'm come across that deal with parenting (of particular interest to me given the presence of our 17 month old rapscallion).

- "Tripping the Parenting Blogosphere" from a March 2008 BusinessWeek issue features mentions and descriptions of various parenting sites including babble and offsprung (started by Neal Pollack, author of "Alternadad"... which I found to be a fairly good book about raising a young kid).

- "When Lead Lurks in Your Nursery" from a September 2007 Time Magazine issue.

- "Fatherhood 2.0" from an October 2007 issue of Time about fathers being heavily involved in the raising of children.

- May 2008 Time Magazine profile of the band They Might be Giants... previously known for songs such as "Istanbul, not Constantinople" and now the creator of children's albums.

Friday, October 17, 2008

"American Wife" by Curtis Sittenfeld

I tend to be more of a reader of non-fiction books, but try to throw in some fiction here and there to "keep myself honest" and read a wide variety of stuff... from both categories of work.

That said, I just finished reading "American Wife" by Curtis Sittenfeld. It's a fictional (i.e. made up) account of first lady Laura Bush and the circumstances of her life and how she wound up married to George W Bush (again, fictional, but with general themes from George W's past that many would recognize). Additional information ranging from author bio to a reading guide for the book can be found at

My reaction to the book is both that I was impressed by it and thought it could have been better.

Impressed by It

The basic genre (if genre is the right term) is fiction, but I think "American Wife" could be further categorized as what I'll call "story of life" fiction.

Similar to "Straight Man" by Richard Russo (which I finished earlier this year) or "The Corrections" by Jonathan Franzen (which I'm about halfway through and hope to finish eventually), Sittenfeld's book carries the reader through a life (or at least period of life) history of the main character.

The manifestation of this on the page is Sittenfeld's (as well as Russo's and Franzen's) work comes across as being character as opposed to plot based. One of the thoughts I have reading good character based fiction (especially Franzen's) is "damn, I wish I could write that well." I love the way this type of writing (done well) paints a vivid portrait on the page of who a person actually is.

This is in no way to mean that plot based is bad as there's of course great plot based stuff out there (The "Twilight" books by Stephenie Meyer and "Harry Potter" books by J.K. Rowling come to mind), but just as I think it's good to read fiction in general, it's also good to read really good character based writing.

I suppose it should also be said that there's fiction writing out there that does both character and plot based well, but it's not common (an example that comes to mind is the character of Howard Roark and circumstances of his life... as written by Ayn Rand in "The Fountainhead").

Anyhoo... back to Sittenfeld's work. What I liked about it was the portrait of a first a girl and then a woman growing up in small town Wisconsin. Her meeting and then interactions with the character later to become President was a fascinating juxtaposition (if I'm actually using that word correctly). What the reader sees is how someone assimilates into a family and social class completely different than their own and the emotions and actions that then evokes in the main character. This period of the book was really well done.

Thought it Could Have Been Better

Interestingly enough, the part I liked the least about the book was what caused me to read it in the first place. It's marketed (correctly so, I suppose) as a fictional account of Laura Bush and her life with George W, but for me, the book basically ends with the conclusion of the section just prior to the Presidency.

I suppose this ties into one of the problems with this so called "story of life" fiction... you either have to pick a discreet time period (as Russo did in his book) and have it be manageable for the reader or cover it all (as Franzen did) and have the book take forever to get through (much as I love the writing, I don't know when I'll finish it).

What I don't like about Sittenfeld's book is that it feels the final part in the White House is simply tacked on to be able to say "this book is about Laura and George W". However, I would have been just as happy if that last section were treated as simply a post-script paragraph rather than another 100 or so pages.

That said... all the stuff above about the excellent character based writing is true. That in itself I think is enough to make this a solid read.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

"The End of Prosperity" Article from Time Magazine

Really interesting cover story from the Oct 13 issue of Time Magazine titled "The End of Prosperity".

Written by Niall Ferguson, it's subtitle is "a noted historian looks at parallels between this financial crisis and 1929 and shows what must be done to avoid Depression 2.0".

Monday, October 13, 2008

BusinessWeek Magazine - Oct 13 Issue

Three different (and completely unrelated) features from the recent BusinessWeek that stood out as interesting...

1. "Dangerous Fakes: How counterfeit, defective computer components from China are getting into U.S. warplanes and ships" is a downright alarming piece that exposes a systematic problem... with potentially devastating impact on our military servicemen and women.

2. "The Power 100: Most influential people in sports": as compiled by experts from all sides of the industry... including the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon.

3. "Nokia's Bid to Rule the Mobile Web" is an interesting look at some of the efforts and strategies under way at the phone maker. While not as sexy as Apple with the introduction of the iPhone, Nokia has a huge influence due simply to it's large share (half a billion handsets expected to ship this year) of the market.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Sports Illustrated Article on

The Oct 13, 2008 issue of Sports Illustrated has a brief piece titled "The Sports-politics Connection" on

The article describes the website as using a statistics-based approach to predicting the winners of political contests. The sports connection (and why this would appear in SI) is that the economics grad creator of the site also has a background in sabermetrics.

This statistical approach to predicting player performance in baseball was begun by Bill James and became more well known as a result of the Michael Lewis book "Moneyball" which was previously reviewed on this blog.

Back to FiveThirtyEight... it's a fascinating site and given that it's about politics and predicting winners, it's probably worthwhile to note that on the FAQ section of the site, the author, Nate Silver, describes himself as someone who votes Democratic the "majority of the time", but attempts to not have his own convictions reflected in any of the statistical predictions.

Really interesting stuff.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Teaching the Bible in Public Schools & Katharine Jefferts Schori interview

There was a fascinating Time Magazine cover story from April 2007 titled "The Case for Teaching the Bible" about the author's view that the Bible should be taught in Public Schools.

The argument is that the Bible's impact as a book that shapes and impacts people's beliefs should be openly discussed... and if that discussion is done properly, there is no conflict between religion as a thing and public school education as a separate thing.

Very interesting idea and the article is a fascinating read.

Additionally (and related in that it's a non-religious look at something closely associated with religion), Time in 2006 ran a very interesting "10 Questions" interview with then President-elect of the U.S. Episcopal Church, Katharine Jefferts Schori. Many religious conservatives have taken umbrage with Schori's "liberal" views on gay clergy and in the interview she speaks to that criticism as well as her feelings on the relationship between religion and science.

Again, interesting ideas and regardless of someone's religious beliefs, there's a lot to be said for understanding where such an influential religious leader is coming from.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

TED (Technology, Entertainment & Design) Conference

I've been hearing about the annual TED conference in Monterey, CA (moving in 2009 to Long Beach) and am just plain fascinated by the whole thing.

The impression that I continually get from reading stories such as this BusinessWeek TED wrap up are that it's full of terribly interesting ideas given by brilliant people. Additionally, I pick up from the linked in BW story column by tech author Sarah Lacy (who happened to write a book described on this blog) that it's also a bit elitist... but, c'mon... it costs $6,000 to attend and everyone wants to. How could it not be elitist?

Anyhoo... regardless of how kind and friendly TED as an entity (kind of like the computer "Hal" from "2001: A Space Odyssey") may be, it does have those aforementioned brilliant people and accompanying ideas.

At the end of the day, maybe you just have to be thankful that the organizers of TED are good enough to provide us common folk with a website where we can view what's been presented by the smarties at TEDs past.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Corporate Workplace Culture: the Good (Not the Bad or Ugly)

While Corporate America often gets a bad rap (justifiably so) for the environment (not CFC-type environment, but employee mattering-type environment) it's people work in, there are some stories out there of companies that do it right...

In a September 2007 article, BusinessWeek ran "Netflix: Flex to the Max" about the efforts at Netflix to both attract and retain the best employees... through extreme "flexibility and responsibility" provided from CEO Reed Hastings on down.

Also, from September 2007, BusinessWeek published "How to Make a Microserf Smile" about the efforts at employee responsiveness done at the tech behemoth. Led by HR chief Lisa Brummel, Microsoft has fought gamely over the last few years to keep both it's star employees and overall moral up.

It's probably not necessary to point to Google as a company that treats it's employees well (given the legendary free cafeteria, child care, laundry, etc), but in it's March 2008 "50 Most Innovative Companies" issue, Fast Company has a piece about the perks enjoyed at Google, including an author and Presidential Candidate speaker series (pretty good stuff).

Finally (and more recently), Fred Kiel in his October 6, 2008 BusinessWeek opinion piece, tears apart the notion that employees are motivated only by self-interest. Kiel argues that rather than this, employees greatly value a workplace culture that trusts it's people (REI as an example) and gives them opportunities to advance (i.e. Costco Wholesale).

Sunday, October 05, 2008

BusinessWeek Magazine - Sept 22 Issue

Some interesting stuff from the September 22 issue of BusinessWeek:

Piece on Business Exchange, a new portion of the BusinessWeek website where individuals can track and comment on specific business topics.

"Los Alamos and Sandia: R&D Treasures" about how Los Alamos and Sandia National Laboratories are sharing their research expertise (for a fee, of course) with private sector companies such as Proctor & Gamble.

"Philips: Philanthropy by Design" about how Royal Philips Electronics is designing products to for purchase by the world's poor. The result can be both increased profit for the company and something valuable provided to the consumer (in one case a new chula stove that causes vastly reduced smoke inhalation).

"Getting Inside the Customer's Mind" about marketing research firm Dunnhumby and it's partnerships with major US retailers Kroger and Macy's.

Jon Fine media opinion piece about the website

Disneyland for Free on Your Birthday

Entry to Disney Parks (Disneyland, Disneyworld, etc) is free on people's birthdays in 2009. Register in advance and save the $69 adult (or $59 for child 2-9 years old) entry fee.

Source: San Jose Mercury News

Thursday, October 02, 2008

"Born Standing Up" by Steve Martin

Having heard Steve Martin's book "Born Standing Up" spoken about in glowing terms on the Howard Stern Show, I decided to give it a read and... was not disappointed.

The book is an autobiography of sorts about Martin's time in doing stand-up (was a distinct period of his life), but also has both some fascinating insights into his character as well as interesting asides that reveal how he views things.

At times it gets a bit tedious and reads a bit like a list of the things he's done, but that's outweighed by the good stuff. Some of that is as follows...

- The idea of Martin starting his entertainment career at age 10 working at the newly opened Disneyland. I couldn't help but be jealous of someone who basically knew from an early age what he wanted to do (even though he went from magic to comedy and then movies and writing)... course, I also give huge credit to someone who kept going after that despite adversity.

- Tied to the notion above, Martin had a quote about his "lean" years that I loved... "Through the years, I have learned there is no harm in charging oneself up with delusions between moments of valid inspiration."

- Martin's depression during his period of greatest stand-up success... right before he ended stand-up.

- His reconciliation with his parents and corresponding reconnection with his sister.

All in all, an interesting read for anyone who is either a fan of Martin or wants some insight into the show business world through someone that has been very successful in it.

It's also short with big words... ;)

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Dixie Chicks on the cover of Time Magazine

It's certainly not recent, but the May 2006 Time cover story on the Dixie Chicks is worth a read. It's a fascinating look at a modern day Salem Witch Trial. All because someone critcized President Bush...