Tuesday, October 27, 2009

"Paris to the Moon" by Adam Gopnik

Just finished reading “Paris to the Moon” by Adam Gopnik and didn’t love, but did enjoy it.

It's a compilation of essays Gopnik wrote for The New Yorker and his personal journals from his time living in Paris (where he, his wife and young song spent five years leading up to the millennium). The book itself is a personal and funny view of Gopnik’s experiences as an expatriate from New York raising a child in in the City of Lights.

Two things from the opening chapter that struck me were Gopnik’s description of Paris and what he hoped to accomplish there...

In describing the attraction to the city, the phrase Gopnik wrote of he and his wife was that they “love Paris not of ‘nostalgia’, but because we love the look of light on things, as opposed to the look of light from things.” This struck me as a very nuanced and interesting way to describe something of natural (even if it involves man-made structures) surroundings.

To further describe why they moved to Paris, Gopnik wrote of “two kinds of travelers. The kind who goes to see what there is to see and sees it, and the kind who has an image in his head and then going out to accomplish it.” Very cool stuff.

I also liked the parts of the book that were about some of the more mundane things around his son (which I suppose makes them not mundane at all). In his chapter “The Rookie” (about making up a long-form narrative baseball bedtime story) and that on swimming at The Ritz pool (with his son spending time with a first crush), Gopnik provides some touching and well written stories.

I suppose the parts of the book I didn’t care for as much were those that dug more deeply into Paris itself (but, I think I would have liked them more had I been more than once) and those on cooking. That being said, the chapter on Alice Waters did make me interested in her Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse.

All in all, a good book and it reminded me of two other books I enjoyed quite a bit also with significant content around being an American living with young children in France. In "Home Game: An Accidental Guide to Fatherhood" (which I reviewed here), Michael Lewis wrote (in part) of living with his wife and young child in Paris and and S.L. Price's excellent book "Far Afield: A Sportswriting Odyssey" was about his experiences living and working in small-town France.

Monday, October 26, 2009

California Profile from Time Magazine

Interesting cover story on California from the latest Time Magazine.

I've heard before the notion of California as an indicator of the rest of the country (sort of an "if it succeeds in California, it can succeed everywhere), and this piece perpetuates that idea. Written by Michael Grunwald, "Despite Its Woes, California's Dream Still Lives" focuses not on the state's budget problems, but rather on the positives going for it.

Innovative companies, diverse demographics and environmental efforts... with Grunwald citing some statistics around the first and third area:

- Clean-tech: California now attracts $3 out of every $5 invested in the area.
- Utilities (which don't have a generally positive environmental reputation): PG&E has 40% of the nation's solar roofs in its territory.
- Energy usage: While per capital usage has increased 50% nationwide, the California amount has remained constant.


A couple of other interesting things from Time to mention here...

- Jennifer Beals (yep, the one from Flashdance) mentioning the university lecture replaying site Academic Earth.

- A review of Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner's new book "Superfreakonomics"... a follow up to their (very interesting) hit "Freakonomics".

- Joel Stein's last page column "Rogue Journalist: Writing My Memoir Palin-Style"... available here as a 49 page pdf file.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Basketball & Joe Pa Sports Illustrated Writing

Several good pieces in the latest Sports Illustrated about topics I didn't expect to be that drawn into.

The cover image has Lebron and Shaq and the most compelling writing within is about... a 38 year old trainer who never played nor coached basketball at a high level. Idan Ravin is profiled by Chris Ballard as being the go-to physical trainer for star players from Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony to Lebron James.

The piece titled "The Hoops Whisperer" is excerpted from Ballard's book "The Art of a Beautiful Game: The Thinking Fan's Tour of the NBA" and provides a really interesting look at an inner working aspect (and guy in that) of the game.

One thing to note is this continues in the line of great book excerpts I've posted on from SI... with the first being that from "Heart of the Game" by S.L. Price and the second an excerpt from "The Machine: A Hot Team, a Legendary Season, and a Heart-stopping World Series: The Story of the 1975 Cincinnati Reds" by Joe Posnanski.


Also of interest as a sports fan was "The Rich Get Richer" about how stacked the top teams in the league are for this upcoming NBA season. Between the Lakers and Spurs in the West and Celtics and Cavs in the East, there's potential for some great Conference Finals matchups.


Finally, it's not basketball related, but compelling was Joe Posnanski's "Joe Paterno Top Of The World, Pa!." About the longtime Penn State football coach, it's written as a piece to Paterno's (presumably very proud) late father and is just really solid writing.

Customer Experience Pieces from BusinessWeek

Some interesting articles from the September 26 BusinessWeek around how companies are trying to bring in and then keep customers.

The cover graphic is titled "The Hard Sell", but the point wasn't that consumers are being pressured. Rather, it's that companies are having to provide a great purchasing experience and not just great products.

Probably the best example of this the piece titled "Amazon: Turning Consumer Opinions into Gold." The main thing detailed is the "customer review" area for products on the Amazon website. As opposed to worrying about any negative reviews hurting sales, Amazon has focused on the idea of being an information source that also happens to sell the products it provides information on. Solid concept...

Two other pieces from this BW report looked at this same idea of how people buy things.

While more in it's infancy than Amazon, the Facebook Connect program is fascinating in it's potential to change how people make purchasing decisions. "Facebook Banks on a Little Help from Its Friends" details how the social networking company is looking at and instituting features that could at a large level help guide people towards products and services recommended by those they trust.

Finally, "Retailers Are Learning to Love Smartphones" details the move from "e" to "m commerce" whereby smartphones are being used to access smart-phone optimized company websites that people buy stuff from. As someone with an iPhone, I find it incredibly annoying going to a website that isn't formatted to come across well on a phone and imagine that's where things are headed.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Noreena Hertz & Hulu Pieces from Fast Company

Two very good (and very different from one another) feature pieces in the November issue of Fast Company Magazine.

The first was a fairly long profile on economist Noreena Hertz titled "How an Economist's Cry for Ethical Capitalism was Heard." A well-written piece by Danielle Sacks, it delves into Hertz's work and writings around capitalism at both a government and corporate level. She first came to prominence with her 2001 book "The Silent Takeover" and followed that up with "The Debt Threat" in 2004.

Sacks describes the first book as being "about the unsustainability-environmentally, socially and economically-of laissez-faire capitalism and the idea that markets are stable." This tying into Hertz's notion that corporations simply acting in the sole interest of shareholders eventually leads down a path detrimental to all. Her second book focuses on the idea of 3rd World debt forgiveness and the idea (often trumpeted by Bono) of 1st World countries wiping out the debt obligations from less developed nations.

It's interesting stuff from Hertz... in part due to the credence in her idea held by capitalist firms such as ING, McDonald's and Salesforce.com. It makes one take note when statements are paid attention to by the very people you'd think would reject them. The idea that Hertz is now espousing is one of co-op capitalism... a model in which companies, NGOs and governments work together.


I also found interesting from this issue the piece titled "Can Hulu Save Traditional TV?" This fairly long profile on the network-owned video sharing site examines the growth of the company and how it both has and could impact television in the future.

It's not as important as the topics Hertz talks about, but Hulu as a medium is intriguing.

Monday, October 12, 2009

"The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work" by Alain de Botton

I came across Alain de Botton’s “The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work” from this BusinessWeek review and just finished reading this interesting book.

As the BW review details, de Botton is a fascinating guy as an heir to a financial asset management fortune who then renounced his trust fund in order to live off his writing. Even if you assume he always had family money to fall back on, it's still admirable.

Looking at de Botton's website it appears that he's done well for himself with a number of books in print that take a philosophical bent on daily activities... with his latest tackling the notion of work. The approach taken in this book was for de Botton to immerse himself for a period of time in multiple occupations and then write at length about them. The chapters and topics covered are below:

Chapter 1 – Cargo Ship Spotting
Chapter 2 – Logistics
Chapter 3 – Biscuit Manufacture
Chapter 4 – Career Counseling
Chapter 5 – Rocket Science
Chapter 6 – Painting
Chapter 7- Transmission Engineering
Chapter 8 – Accountancy
Chapter 9 – Entrepreneurship
Chapter 10 – Aviation

de Botton's book for me was one of those reads that covered a lot of ground... with some pretty mundane sections, but also some incredibly interesting concepts...

CREATING SOMETHING – The chapter on painting delved into what for me is the extremely meaningful idea of working at something that provides an output of someone’s efforts… even if not always for great monetary gain.


HAVING A THINGCargo Ship Spotting was an interesting chapter because it wasn’t even about a money making enterprise. Rather, it described a group of people who as an avocation immerse themselves in a specific and fairly obscure enterprise.

What’s appealing about this is that even if they didn’t do it as their vocation, these people had "a thing” they immersed themselves in. For some people, their “thing” is their work (which is great for them), for other’s it’s not their work (which can still be ok) and for others, they don’t really have a “thing”… which for lack of a better word, sucks.


HOW THE WORLD WORKS – The concept in two of the chapters seem like it could jointly be described as “how the world works.” Logistics takes an interesting look at how a tuna steak goes from line capture in the Maldives to a family in England... basically a look at the world you live in and how it functions.

Entrepreneurship as a chapter meanders around quite a bit, but has some fascinating stuff around the most financially successful entrepreneur mentioned. This person’s statements showed a view of the working world different than many might have. Rather than seeing a haphazard collection of objects and services mystically provided, he appeared to view the world as a place built for profit by people with intent.

While it’s still very true that someone taking this view of the world isn’t necessarily going to be successful or happy (as this entrepreneur didn’t seem to be so), it probably could be said that taking this big picture view of things and figuring out how you can function in them is likely a key ingredient to the success held by many.

Taking it a step further... for someone to figure out their function in that chain (and make money) combined with it being “a thing of theirs” (and be happy)… that’s the good stuff there.


COG IN THE MACHINE – The chapters on Biscuit Manufacture, Accountancy and Aviation could I think be described as the more depressing chapters in the book. While it’s certainly possible that the people featured in these sections do have interesting avocations where they spend time on their “things” (whether those be family, hobbies, or whatever else interests them), they certainly didn’t seem to be getting much out of work.

Instead of great fulfillment, their non-monetary take-aways from jobs appeared to be the not so inspiring concepts of work as a way to pass the time. As de Botton describes it, their jobs winds up making life “no longer mysterious, sad, haunting, touching, confusing or melancholy; it is a practical stage for clear-eyed action."

I think the thing out of these sections of the book is about how one views work. Jobs in and of themselves are not bad, in fact they can be necessary to make money in order to finance a life. Where jobs can be bad, though, is if you view them as either a distraction from things more important or as something that negatively impacts the person.

Having a vocation that provides money, fulfillment and everything someone would want in an avocation is great, but not always practical or available to all. If it’s not, there’s still a lot to be said for the idea of work that may not provide you everything you want, but lets one make a living… while still making a life outside of work.


Interesting read with some interesting ideas contained within...

401K Pieces from Time & BusinessWeek

Interesting story on the concept of a 401K retirement plan in the latest Time Magazine.

In his piece "Why It's Time to Retire the 401(k)" Stephen Gandel examines the heavily trumpeted retirement plan... and looks at it's shortcomings and what to do about it.

The basic statement Gandel makes is that 401K programs were never designed to be a replacement for company pension programs, but rather a supplement to them. However, the present-day corporate climate has one company after another eliminating pensions and relying on 401K plans... leaving the retirement income solely up to (A) house equity, (B) 401K and other investment income and (C) Social Security.

401K plans in and of themselves are not a bad thing as they encourage employees to save money and often feature some form of company matching of funds (as a replacement for pension programs), but in current form they can fall victim to the vagaries of the stock market. For those who hoped to retire last year, this year or in the next 5-10 years, the plummeting of 401K values in many cases put those plans on hold. As to the idea of house equity as a source of retirement income... see aforementioned 401K value plunge.

The alternative in Gandel's piece is an idea that combines aspects of a pension program and 401K. There's a plan that still gets employee contributions, but rather than those contributions then going towards investments, they go towards a guaranteed monthly check from retirement until death... in short, a pension. Difference is that in this case it's funded not by the company (and to be fair to corporations, the US auto industry is an exhibit of how pension programs can cripple a business), but by the individual.

It remains to be seen how effective 401K programs are for many as they simply haven't been around long enough. Perhaps over another 20 years they'll prove wildly successful if the market continues on an upward path, but I get completely the idea of there being an alternative with less risk. Perhaps that alternative sacrifices the possibility of high returns in the market, but would do so while providing more of a guarantee for retirement... and reduce the number of people worried about their money running out before they die.


Within the same topic, but taking a different approach, BusinessWeek featured an article in it's July 13 issue titled "IBM Reinvents the 401(k)". The idea implemented there works on the idea of there being a 401K rather than pension program and then attempts to get the best 401K program possible. That involves a generous company match, but also access to both online financial planning tools and no-cost sessions with financial advisers.

I don't agree with the IBM consideration of using the 401K and other benefits on a tiered scale rewarding highly ranked employees more than others (as I feel that's what salary and bonuses are for), but do appreciate the concept of trying to set employees up as much as possible to succeed without actually having the expense of a traditional pension program.

Gotta have some sort of balance between the bottom line of the company on one hand and the long-term financial success of it's employees on the other.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Earthquake Preparedness Section from Mercury News

It's not necessarily good writing related stuff, but some excellent information in the San Jose Mercury News Special Section on the Loma Prieta Earthquake Anniversary on how to prepare for and react to a quake.

Two things that stood out where a graphic checklist how to prepare your house and this piece on the house preparations done by a Los Gatos resident.

Below are some of the key steps taken from the linked checklist that can be taken to prepare for or in case of an earthquake.

Items to have:
- water - a gallon per person, per day
- water purifying tablets
- non perishable food high in calories... dehydrated food, granola bars, canned goods
- can opener
- baby supplies
- flashlights
- batteries
- shoes and change of clothing
- blankets or sleeping bags

Things to do prior to an earthquake:
- know how to turn off gas, water and electricity
- secure appliances and tall furniture
- place bed away from window (also good to have blinds closed)
- secure cabinet doors
- confirm water heater secured by strap
- be aware of mirrors and pictures that could fall

Things to do in an earthquake:
- drop under a desk or table if inside
- stay away from windows
- stay inside if already there
- stay in bed if already there... cover with blanket/pillow
- if you're outside, get clear of buildings, trees, streetlights and power lines... then drop to the ground
- if you're driving, pull to the side trying to stay clear of things that could fall and stay there with your seatbelt on

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Fast Company Magazine - Oct 2009 Issue

Some interesting stuff (for various reasons) from the latest issue of Fast Company Magazine...

The NextTech feature "OnLive Goes Online--And It Could Kill the Game Console" chronicles serial tech entrepreneur Steve Perlman and his latest venture... OnLive. The company itself is about streaming video games over the Internet, but I was struck by the piece not so much because of OnLive, but because of Perlman himself.

After hitting big by co founding and then selling WebTV, he created the business incubator Rearden (which I think was originally named Rearden Steel). Yep, he named it after the main guy in Ayn Rand's manifesto/book "Atlas Shrugged". Onlive is actually the third venture to come out of Rearden, with the first two being a set-top box maker and motion capture company that provided technology to help make "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"... a most excellent film with stellar effects.

I suppose my only data point is that he named his company after an Ayn Rand character, but out of that, I'll say he's an interesting guy... whose companies definitely work on interesting stuff.


I also found of note the cover story on Coca-Cola VP of Design David Butler. While I have to admit personal envy of Butler's cool (at 43) look and job, I also appreciated his interest in and ideas around systems and platforms.

Additionally, I found interesting Butler's commentary around the role of design not just for the sake of design itself, but to put things in place to sell more stuff. As evidence of this, Butler's big step forward after arriving at Coke was his three page memo "designing on purpose" about the overarching role of design within the company.


The other design piece I really liked this this issue was that on information architect Lisa Strausfeld. The whole idea behind her area of interest is information and how it tells a story to the people who interact with it.

I also found interesting her mention of her late mentor Muriel Cooper and how she "wanted to do hard-core information design rather than entertainment-oriented work." I love things that entertain, but even more so completely get what Strausfeld finds appealing about this concept of working on something lasting with teeth.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Domestic Terrorism Piece from David Von Drehle

Some solid writing from the October 12 issue of Time Magazine.

Most noteworthy was "An Enemy Within: The Making of Najibullah Zazi" about the investigation and arrest of a suspected domestic terrorism plotter. The piece was pretty compelling reading and makes one wonder what might have been the eventual intention of Zazi. What would have been interesting to read more of, though, is the purported tip off of Zazi as a result of NYPD inquiries... and to know what could or should have been done differently in the investigation.

That said, it's excellent writing that mirrors past work from Time Senior Writer David Von Drehle, including his book "Triangle" The Fire that Changed America", which was reviewed in this blog post.

Also from this issue was the Joel Stein back-page column titled "The Tough-Love Dictator of My Dreams." Someone could try to assign point of view or message to the piece, but it's probably easier to just appreciate it for what it is... very funny writing.

Finally, I found interesting the short memoriam piece by Peggy Noonan on fellow speechwriter (and columnist) William Safire. I particularly like the quotes about writing attributed to Safire...

"Write what you see because what history needs more of is first-person testimony" and "never feel guilty about reading; it's what you do to do what you do." Solid stuff.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Mariano Rivera & Chris Andersen Sports Illustrated Profiles

Two really good profile pieces in the Oct 5 Sports Illustrated.

The first is by Tom Verducci and titled "Mariano Saves" about the exploits of the Yankee pitcher. Throughout the piece is detailed Rivera's unflappable cool and incredible success closing games. Perhaps even more amazing than what Rivera has accomplished is the manner in which he's done it... with 92% of his pitches thrown being the cut-fastball.

The second is about someone who certainly hasn't had the longevity or success of Rivera, but perhaps is just as popular in the town he plays. Denver Nuggets forward Chris Andersen is profiled in the L. Jon Wertheim story "Flight of the Birdman" and his is quite the ride. After serving a 2 year drug-related suspension from the NBA, Andersen is now a fan favorite due to both his approachable every-guy attitude and reckless abandon style of play.

Both stories portray interesting people and do so through really solid writing... an excellent combination.