June 25, 2011

How to survive the age of distraction

Johann Hari:

Read a book with your laptop thrumming. It can feel like trying to read in the middle of a party where everyone is shouting

In the 20th century, all the nightmare-novels of the future imagined that books would be burnt. In the 21st century, our dystopias imagine a world where books are forgotten. To pluck just one, Gary Steynghart's novel Super Sad True Love Story describes a world where everybody is obsessed with their electronic Apparat - an even more omnivorous i-Phone with a flickering stream of shopping and reality shows and porn - and have somehow come to believe that the few remaining unread paper books let off a rank smell. The book on the book, it suggests, is closing.

I have been thinking about this because I recently moved flat, which for me meant boxing and heaving several Everests of books, accumulated obsessively since I was a kid. Ask me to throw away a book, and I begin shaking like Meryl Streep in Sophie's Choice and insist that I just couldn't bear to part company with it, no matter how unlikely it is I will ever read (say) a 1,000-page biography of little-known Portuguese dictator Antonio Salazar. As I stacked my books high, and watched my friends get buried in landslides of novels or avalanches of polemics, it struck me that this scene might be incomprehensible a generation from now. Yes, a few specialists still haul their vinyl collections from house to house, but the rest of us have migrated happily to MP3s, and regard such people as slightly odd. Does it matter? What was really lost?

Posted by jimz at 6:05 PM

May 21, 2011

Henry Kissinger talks to Simon Schama

Simon Schama:

Not so much, though, as to get in the way of treating China as an indispensable element in any stabilisation of perilous situations in Korea and Afghanistan. Without China's active participation, any attempts to immunise Afghanistan against terrorism would be futile. This may be a tall order, since the Russians and the Chinese are getting a "free ride" on US engagement, which contains the jihadism which in central Asia and Xinjiang threatens their own security. So was it, in retrospect, a good idea for Barack Obama to have announced that this coming July will see the beginning of a military drawdown? The question triggers a Vietnam flashback. "I know from personal experience that once you start a drawdown, the road from there is inexorable. I never found an answer when Le Duc Tho was taunting me in the negotiations that if you could not handle Vietnam with half-a-million people, what makes you think you can end it with progressively fewer? We found ourselves in a position where to maintain ... a free choice for the population in South Vietnam ... we had to keep withdrawing troops, thereby reducing the incentive for the very negotiations in which I was engaged. We will find the same challenge in Afghanistan. I wrote a memorandum to Nixon which said that in the beginning of the withdrawal it will be like salted peanuts; the more you eat, the more you want."

Posted by jez at 9:07 PM

April 26, 2011

Lonely Planet's Ambassador

Amy Yee:

Tony Wheeler, co-founder of Lonely Planet, sits in the lobby of an austere five-star hotel here. Soft-spoken and down-to-earth, the 64-year-old wears a gray dress shirt with dark-blue trousers. He has trimmed gray hair and silver glasses, but his amiable face still hints of the youthful, long-haired traveler featured in photos from the 1970s.

Mr. Wheeler doesn't need to stay in budget hostels anymore. When traveling to big cities, he checks into luxury hotels. And why not? He founded Lonely Planet travel guides with his wife, Maureen, nearly four decades ago. Since its launch in 1973, Lonely Planet has sold more than 100 million guidebooks to far-off lands, from Antarctica to Zambia and everywhere in between. And this past February the Wheelers sold their remaining 25% stake in the company to BBC Worldwide for £42.1 million (about $69.5 million) after selling 75% in 2007 to the same buyer for £88.1 million. The Wheelers don't have official roles in the company but will continue as de facto ambassadors for Lonely Planet.

Posted by jez at 7:45 AM

January 24, 2011

The Grounds of Courage: Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Alan Wolfe:

Early in January 1939, the precocious German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, age thirty-two, learned that all males in his age cohort had been ordered to register with the military. A dedicated opponent of the Nazi regime, he might have responded by declaring himself a conscientious objector, but there were two problems with such a course of action. The first was that Bonhoeffer, although pacifist by inclination, was not opposed to violence under all conditions; and he would later play an active role in the conspiracy led by German generals to assassinate Hitler. The second was that his fame in the Confessing Church (more on this below) might encourage other religious leaders critical of the regime to do the same, thereby bringing them under greater suspicion and undermining their efforts to prove that Nazi policies, and especially their rapidly intensifying Jew-hatred, were contrary to the teachings of Jesus Christ.

The solution was provided by America's most illustrious theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr. Nine years earlier, Bonhoeffer had spent a year in the United States as a free-floating exchange student at Union Theological Seminary, arriving not long after Niebuhr had moved there from Detroit. He had made such a positive impression on Union's faculty that Niebuhr jumped at the opportunity to bring him back. If we fail to offer him a job, he told Union's president, Henry Sloane Coffin, Bonhoeffer will wind up in a concentration camp. This was not the stuff of run-of-the-mill letters of recommendation. Union extended the offer. Grateful to have a way out of his dilemma, Bonhoeffer booked passage, and in June 1939 found himself safe in America.

Posted by jez at 9:44 PM

January 4, 2011

E-book pioneer sees future of reading as a shared activity

In 1992, virtual eons before the Kindle and the iPad, Bob Stein created software that let a reader flip through an electronic book on a laptop computer.

To demonstrate the program at conferences, Stein would lie down on stage as if reading in bed.

"Publishers would see this and they would think it was cute, but they didn't think it had anything to do with them," he recalls.

Now that the revolution is here, Stein says publishers should embrace what he sees as the inevitable result: the evolution of reading from a solitary pursuit into a communal, electronically networked activity - something he calls social reading and writing.

Posted by jez at 7:43 AM

December 28, 2010

Accessing the e-book revolution

Steven Johnson:

In 1467, Peter Schöffer and Johann Fust published a translation of St Augustine's The Art Of Preaching. They were old colleagues of Johannes Gutenberg, the pioneer of modern printing. But their true claim to fame is that they were the first commercially successful printers, and this success stemmed in part from their relentless innovation with the world's newest communications technology: the book.

One such innovation appeared in the 1467 edition, which was the first printed book to include an alphabetical index. Schöffer and Fust were not only competing by releasing new titles. They were changing what it meant to use and read a book.

Some of the first book advertisements - and indeed some of the first modern adverts anywhere - talked up their "better arranged indexes" as a selling point. The publishers of the The Art of Preaching claimed that their indexes, along with other new cross-referencing features, were "alone worth the whole price, because they make it much easier to use".

The phrase sounds like it could be from an advert for some 21st-century gadget: "Our books aren't just informative. They're also user-friendly!" The echo of today's marketing language is no accident. Thanks to a series of interrelated technologies - but especially the web, the Kindle and the iPad - we are living through a radical reinvention of the tools and techniques of reading.

Posted by jez at 4:11 PM

October 15, 2010

Future Shock at 40: What the Tofflers Got Right (and Wrong)

Greg Lindsay:
They predicted the “electronic frontier” of the Internet, Prozac, YouTube, cloning, home-schooling, the self-induced paralysis of too many choices, instant celebrities, and the end of blue-collar manufacturing. Not bad for 1970.

In the opening minutes of Future Shock, a 1972 documentary based on the book of the same name, a bearded, cigar-puffing, world-weary Orson Welles staggers down an airport’s moving walkway, treating the camera like a confidante. “In the course of my work, which has taken me to just about every corner of the globe, I see many aspects of a phenomenon which I’m just beginning to understand,” he says. “Our modern technologies have changed the degree of sophistication beyond our wildest dreams. But this technology has exacted a pretty heavy price. We live in an age of anxiety and time of stress. And with all our sophistication, we are in fact the victims of our own technological strengths –- we are the victims of shock… a future shock.”
Posted by James Zellmer at 8:17 PM

September 26, 2010

What was the last great football team that played the sport for love and camaraderie, not money or fame?…

John Michaud
It's late afternoon on a football Sunday in the Northeast, circa 1976. Outside, the sun is setting. Soon your mother will call you up for dinner. But, before then, you want more football. You flip over to NBC and there, in West Coast sunshine, is a team wearing silver and black, playing with a kind of controlled recklessness. Their logo features a pair of crossed swords and a man with an eyepatch; their coach is a shambling, wild-haired guy; their quarterback is nicknamed Snake; and their owner looks like he carries a stiletto in his jacket. You watch them play and before you know it, you've fallen in love with this team. Before you know it, you've abandoned your Redskins or Eagles or Jets. You're now an Oakland Raiders fan. If any of the above resonates for you, then you will want to read Peter Richmond's new book, “Badasses: The Legend of Snake, Foo, Dr. Death, and John Madden's Oakland Raiders,” which has just been published by Harper. Richmond, who is the author of numerous books on sports (as well as a Shouts & Murmurs piece about Ken Griffey, Jr. published in The New Yorker), kindly agreed to answer a few questions by e-mail.
Posted by James Zellmer at 7:40 PM

August 8, 2010

The End of the Guidebook

Tom Robbins:
I am in Tate Modern with no Baedeker. Nor Lonely Planet, Rough Guide, Time Out or any other type of guidebook. For Lucy Honeychurch, heroine of EM Forster’s Room with a View, this would be a desperate situation. Without a guidebook in Florence’s Santa Croce, she is bereft, close to tears, unsure what she should be looking at, unable to recall any of the building’s history and upset at having no one to tell her which of the sculptures and frescoes is most beautiful.

I, however, am supremely confident. I may not have a guidebook but I am equipped with “Google Goggles”, and thus have at my fingertips more information than exists in any guidebook ever written – perhaps more even than the combined wisdom of all guidebooks ever written.

Disappointingly, Google Goggles are not physical goggles, or glasses of any kind, but an app that will soon become available for iPhones and already works with Android smartphones. Put simply, whereas Google lets you search the internet using keywords, this allows you to search with an image. You use the phone’s camera to take a photo of something – a church, a monument, a painting or a sculpture – then wait a few seconds for the image-recognition software to scan it, before being offered a full range of information about it. The implications for travel are huge.
Posted by James Zellmer at 5:02 PM

August 7, 2010

The Style of an Elegant Bookstore

Posted by James Zellmer at 9:47 PM

February 17, 2010

Why the Technology Sector Should Care About Google Books

Gary Reback @ TechCrunch:
Antitrust lawyer and Open Book Alliance leader Gary Reback has been called the “antitrust champion” and the “protector of the marketplace” by the National Law Journal, and has been at the forefront of many of the most important antitrust cases of the last three decades. He is one of the most vocal opponents of the Google Books settlement. I interviewed Reback a few months ago, and Google Books was one of the topics we discussed. In the column below, Reback discusses Google Books and its ties to Google search.

This Thursday leaders of the international publishing industry will watch with bated breath as a federal judge in New York hears arguments over whether to approve the Google Book Settlement.

More a complicated joint venture among Google and five big New York publishers than the resolution of pending litigation, the proposed settlement once promised unprecedented access to millions of out-of-print books through digital sales to consumers and online research subscriptions for libraries. But with the passage of time and the ability to examine the deal more closely, the promises proved illusory. The big publishers, as it turns out, have reserved the right to negotiate secret deals with Google for the books they claim through the settlement (pdf).

Meanwhile, torrents of outrage rained down on the New York court – from authors whose ownership rights will be appropriated through the settlement’s procedures, from librarians fearful of price exploitation by Google, from privacy advocates worried that Google will monitor the reading habits of library patrons, from libertarians incensed over the use of a legal procedure to effect the widespread appropriation of property, from digital booksellers concerned about Google’s unfair advantage in the marketplace.
Posted by James Zellmer at 10:24 AM

January 10, 2010

The Checklist Manifesto

Atul Gawande:
We live in a world of great and increasing complexity, where even the most expert professionals struggle to master the tasks they face. Longer training, ever more advanced technologies—neither seems to prevent grievous errors. But in a hopeful turn, acclaimed surgeon and writer Atul Gawande finds a remedy in the humblest and simplest of techniques: the checklist. First introduced decades ago by the U.S. Air Force, checklists have enabled pilots to fly aircraft of mind-boggling sophistication. Now innovative checklists are being adopted in hospitals around the world, helping doctors and nurses respond to everything from flu epidemics to avalanches. Even in the immensely complex world of surgery, a simple ninety-second variant has cut the rate of fatalities by more than a third.

In riveting stories, Gawande takes us from Austria, where an emergency checklist saved a drowning victim who had spent half an hour underwater, to Michigan, where a cleanliness checklist in intensive care units virtually eliminated a type of deadly hospital infection. He explains how checklists actually work to prompt striking and immediate improvements. And he follows the checklist revolution into fields well beyond medicine, from disaster response to investment banking, skyscraper construction, and businesses of all kinds.

An intellectual adventure in which lives are lost and saved and one simple idea makes a tremendous difference, The Checklist Manifesto is essential reading for anyone working to get things right.
Looks like a must read.
Posted by James Zellmer at 8:41 PM

December 5, 2009

Musée de l'Orangerie Panorama

Click to the image above to view this August, 2007 (hand held) panoramic image of Monet's water lillies. Musée de l'Orangerie website. This journey and image made possible by the generosity of my parents!
Posted by James Zellmer at 6:47 PM

November 9, 2009

Fond farewell to a brilliant thinker

Stefan Stern:
The scene is Detroit, a training room at the headquarters of one of the three great US car companies. A group of corporate vice-presidents is attending a course being given by a distinguished management thinker.

“What you are telling us is great,” the VPs say, “but you are talking to the wrong level. You should be speaking to the next tier up.” The next week, working with more senior managers, he hears the same thing. “This is great, but you are talking to the wrong level. You should be speaking with the chief executive.”

The week after that, our thinker finally gets in to see the boss. “This is great,” the CEO says, “but you should be speaking with my subordinates – I’d need their support in order to do it.”

This is a true story, as told by Russ Ackoff, the management thinker in question, who died a few days ago, aged 90. Two key Ackoffian ideas emerge from this tale. First, do not wait for others in the business to start changing things. Go and do it yourself. But second, and more important: never forget that everyone in the business is interconnected, that they are all operating as part of a system, that tinkering with one part of the company is never really enough, and may even make things worse. You need to see the business as a whole, as a complete system, if you want to make lasting improvements to it.
Posted by James Zellmer at 10:13 PM

October 16, 2009

Brought to Book

Ben Fenton and Salamander Davoudi:
The new way of reading books arrived hesitantly. It exploited a novel technology, reflected changing public habits of consumption and radically altered the distribution and economics of the traditional publishing industry.

The paperback represented an intimidating revolution to the 1930s book industry. It took high literature to a far wider audience. But established publishers disdained it, fearing it would cheapen the industry and drive down profits. It might not have been – as its ancestor the pamphlet novel was in the 1840s – assailed as a threat to the “eyesight of a rising generation”, yet the reaction had much else in common with how the emergence of the electronic book is now being regarded.

At the Frankfurt Book Fair this week, the talk has been all about the impact of the e-book, with scores of sessions and seminars devoted to discussing the implications of devices such as Amazon’s Kindle and the Sony Reader. Another hot topic is Google’s digitisation of, so far, 10m books including about 9m still protected by copyright.
Posted by James Zellmer at 5:08 PM

July 31, 2009

Lunch with Rory Stewart

Emily Stokes:
I was thinking we should do questions first and chat later,” says Rory Stewart, 36 and director of the Carr Centre for Human Rights at Harvard’s Kennedy School. I ask if the distinction is absolutely necessary; we are, after all, settling down for lunch, not preparing for a seminar.

“There might”, he says, “be a holistic theory that there’s no real distinction between interview and personal chat, just like there’s a theory that there’s no distinction between development, state-building and counter-insurgency, but I like to see things in categories.” He pauses to gauge whether I’m still following: “It’s like my belief that counter-terrorism is completely different from development.”

It is perhaps not surprising Stewart has no time for small talk. He has walked 6,000 miles across Asia; written a bestselling travel book at 28, and last year was chosen as one of Esquire magazine’s 75 most influential people of the 21st century.

Upon accepting the position at Harvard, he bought a huge house in Cambridge, where he now lives alone, filling it with furniture from his family home in the Scottish Highlands – evidence, perhaps, that he had renounced the life of an adventurer and charity director in Asia to settle down.

The restaurant where we meet is certainly sedate. Harvest specialises in New England cuisine (stews and seafood). Jazz plays in the background, and the napkins are shaped into concertinas. Stewart greets me with a toothy smile, sits down and, after a brief tutorial on the difference between counter-terrorism and development, opens a menu. He has, he says, had clam chowder for breakfast, and, undaunted by the prospect of yet more soupy seafood, orders mussels, followed by bouillabaisse. “Oh yes, I’m very New England,” he says.

Stewart has a detached way of speaking, in perfect paragraphs, without hesitation. He once told a former colleague that he added “um”s and “er”s to his speech at school because he was scaring the other children. You can tell when he is excited by a topic because his speech seems less scripted, and he surprises me by becoming more animated when I ask him about whether he feels at home in Cambridge – even though he answers my question by talking about Afghanistan: “There, I wake up looking at a mud courtyard with peacocks prancing on the grass; I go down to the old city…”

Since arriving at Harvard in June last year, he has been consultant to several members of Barack Obama’s administration, including Hillary Clinton, and is a member of Richard Holbrooke’s special committee for Afghanistan and Pakistan policy. “I do a lot of work with policymakers, but how much effect am I having?” he asks, pronging a mussel out of its shell.

“It’s like they’re coming in and saying to you, ‘I’m going to drive my car off a cliff. Should I or should I not wear a seatbelt?’ And you say, ‘I don’t think you should drive your car off the cliff.’ And they say, ‘No, no, that bit’s already been decided – the question is whether to wear a seatbelt.’ And you say, ‘Well, you might as well wear a seatbelt.’ And then they say, ‘We’ve consulted with policy expert Rory Stewart and he says ...’”
Posted by James Zellmer at 10:42 PM

July 6, 2009

The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford's Forgotten Jungle City By Greg Grandin

Brian Ladd:
We revere Henry Ford: the inventor of modern mass production; the man who put Americans on wheels; the stolid Midwesterner whose ingenuity, common sense and hard work built an empire. Yet this same man was a bundle of contradictions: a pacifist who built tanks and warplanes, and who unleashed frightful brutality against his own striking workers; a hardheaded tycoon who strove to restore a sentimental vision of small-town life. He was, in short, the quintessential American: a hero and a fool.

"Fordism" also became a beacon for the world. Lenin's Russia, Hitler's Germany and many poor countries looked to the magic of mass production - and the magic of automobiles - to catapult their way to prosperity. Still, it's a little surprising that Greg Grandin wants to explain Henry Ford's America by taking us up the Amazon, where an old-fashioned water tower rises out of the jungle, hinting at a lost utopia.

Grandin, author of "Ford-landia," has rediscovered one of Ford's most ambitious but least known ventures. In 1927, Ford obtained a Connecticut-size chunk of the Brazilian jungle. His immediate goal was to establish a rubber plantation to supply his factories' insatiable demand for tires and gaskets, but he also saw an opportunity to bring Brazil the same blessings that he prided himself on bringing to his Michigan workers: good wages, plus the standards of middle-class propriety that spelled the difference between civilization and chaos.
Posted by James Zellmer at 8:53 AM

June 20, 2009

The Author as Performer

James Harkin:
Late last year, for one night only, fans of the musical The Lion King were turned away from the Lyceum theatre in London’s West End. If they had been able to peer inside at the stage they would have witnessed not Simba, dancers in multicoloured costumes and “The Circle of Life” but a solitary, slender 45-year-old Canadian with bouffant hair standing behind a lectern. There were no props, apart from the video screen relaying his image around the huge auditorium, but this didn’t bother the youngish crowd who had bought 4,000 tickets at around £20 a piece to listen to one of two consecutive performances.

The speaker was the influential journalist, author and ideas entrepreneur Malcolm Gladwell, in town to promote his latest book, Outliers: The Story of Success. But this wasn’t a book reading or a Q&A session of the kind authors traditionally submit to. Neither was it a slide show, as you might expect to find at a lecture. Instead, the author recounted a single vignette from the book – the tale of why a plane ended up crashing, from the perspective of the pilots and those in the control tower – and burnished it into a narrative with all the chill and pace of a traditional ghost story. Even the lighting was kept deliberately low to create the right atmosphere. The performance lasted precisely an hour and five minutes, and no questions were invited after Gladwell had finished speaking. Rather than a talk about a book, it looked more like a carefully choreographed stage show.
Posted by James Zellmer at 9:30 PM

June 16, 2009

Peter Bernstein's Lasting Lessons

Julia Kirby:
The news came to us at HBR just after our newest issue went to the printer; that issue contains, sadly, the last article he wrote for our pages. Because it is the July-August issue, and will arrive on newsstands two weeks hence, it will seem strange to many readers that the byline makes no note of his passing -- and worse, that the editor's letter is mute on the many accomplishments of his rich and long life. Such are the perils of print publishing, and for that we apologize.

But here let it be said that, when work began last January on envisioning the July-August issue -- a special, double-sized issue devoted wholly to exploring how the business landscape would be transformed by the financial crisis and recession -- Peter Bernstein's voice was the first we sought to include. He was the master at explaining issues of financial risk, and there has scarcely been a time when the world needed his kind of clear analysis more.

In response to a vaguely worded invitation from us (deliberately so, in the interests of giving Peter full license to address what he felt needed to be addressed), he came back with a tightly crafted essay called "The Moral Hazard Economy."
Posted by James Zellmer at 4:42 PM

May 26, 2009

On Manufacturing in China

The Economist:
HE recent scandals about poisoned baby milk, contaminated pet food and dangerous toys from China have raised questions about manufacturing standards in the country that has become factory to the world. In China’s defence, it was probably inevitable that as production grew so would the problems associated with it, at least in the short term. Similarly, it could be argued that China is going through the same quality cycle that occurred during Japan’s post-war development or America’s manufacturing boom in the late 19th century—but in an environment with infinitely more scrutiny.

A response to both these observations can be found in “Poorly Made in China” by Paul Midler, a fluent Chinese speaker who in 2001 moved to China to work as a consultant to the growing numbers of Western companies now replacing factories in Europe and America with subcontracting relationships in the emerging industrial zone surrounding Guangzhou. It was the perfect period to arrive. The normal problems of starting a business, such as getting clients or providing a value proposition, do not hinder Mr Midler, who had the benefit of being in the right place at the right time.
Posted by James Zellmer at 4:26 PM

April 30, 2009

Scenes: "Read a Paper" - and Turn off the TV

A useful idea, from a bookstore south of the Mason Dixon line. I'd substitute "book, or perhaps ebook" for "paper".
Posted by James Zellmer at 9:35 AM

March 18, 2009

How Rich Countries Die

Philip Greenspun:
This is a book report on The Rise and Decline of Nations: Economic Growth, Stagflation, and Social Rigidities, by Mancur Olson. There isn’t a whole lot about how nations pulled themselves out of their medieval stagnation (see A Farewell to Alms for that), so a better title for this still-in-print book from 1982 would be “How Rich Countries Die.”

Table 1.1 shows annual rates of growth in per-capita GDP for each of three decades, the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, in a range of rich countries. Contrary to our perception of the U.S. as a growth dynamo and the Europeans as sclerotic, France and Germany tremendously outperformed the U.S., as did most of the other countries. If we have grown larger it is because our population has expanded much faster than the European countries.

Chapter 2 summarizes Olson’s groundbreaking work on how interest groups work to reduce a society’s efficiency and GDP. Some of this work seems obvious in retrospect and indeed Adam Smith noted that businessmen rarely met without conspiring against the public interest. There are a handful of automobile producers and millions of automobile consumers. It makes sense for an automobile company, acting individually, to lobby Congress for tariffs. The company will reap 20-40 percent of the benefits of the tariff. It doesn’t make sense for an individual consumer, however, to lobby Congress. It will cost him millions of dollars to lobby against Congress and preventing the tariff will save him only a few thousand dollars on his next car purchase. The economy suffers because some resources that would have been put to productive use are instead hanging around Washington and because cars are more expensive than they should be.
Posted by James Zellmer at 2:27 PM

August 4, 2008

Nassim Nicholas Taleb: the prophet of boom and doom

Bryan Appleyard:

"You have to worry about things you can do something about. I worry about people not being there and I want to make them aware." We should be mistrustful of knowledge. It is bad for us. Give a bookie 10 pieces of information about a race and he’ll pick his horses. Give him 50 and his picks will be no better, but he will, fatally, be more confident.

We should be ecologically conservative – global warming may or may not be happening but why pollute the planet? – and probablistically conservative. The latter, however, has its limits. Nobody, not even Taleb, can live the sceptical life all the time – “It’s an art, it’s hard work.” So he doesn’t worry about crossing the road and doesn’t lock his front door – “I can’t start getting paranoid about that stuff.” His wife locks it, however.

He believes in aristocratic – though not, he insists, elitist – values: elegance of manner and mind, grace under pressure, which is why you must shave before being executed. He believes in the Mediterranean way of talking and listening. One piece of advice he gives everybody is: go to lots of parties and listen, you might learn something by exposing yourself to black swans.

I ask him what he thinks are the primary human virtues, and eventually he comes up with magnanimity – punish your enemies but don’t bear grudges; compassion – fairness always trumps efficiency; courage – very few people have this; and tenacity – tinker until it works for you.

Posted by jez at 5:33 AM

June 3, 2008

Recent Book: Retribution

Is a worthwhile read, particularly for the history of our relations with mainland China. Jonathan Beard posted a brief review:

When Max Hastings chose “Retribution” as the title for his overview of the last two years of World War II in Asia, it is obvious that he had Japan in mind. This is the story of Japan reaping the whirlwind for the winds it had sown since 1937 in China, and since Pearl Harbor in 1941. But retribution also means a distribution of rewards and punishments, and it is here that Hastings stands out: this is the most judgmental work of military history I have ever read. Hastings passes out a little praise–he greatly admires William Slim for his generalship in Burma, and has kind words for Chester Nimitz–but his forte is denunciations. The most consistent target of his wrath is Douglas MacArthur, but his condemnation of William Halsey for his performance at Leyte Gulf is harsh as well. He also devotes an entire (short) chapter to condemning the Australian people, military, labor movement and leadership for their performance in the last stages of the war. But these are just the controversial denunciations. He reserves most of his anger for Japan, especially its leaders, from Hirohito down to individual officers, accusing most of them of combining casual cruelty with moral cowardice. But the Japanese are not alone: Hastings condemns all the Western powers for their patronizing, racist treatment of Asian allies, and, on the other side, sees both Chiang Kai-Shek and Mao Zedong as tyrants lacking human feelings for their own people.

Posted by jez at 2:45 PM

May 5, 2008

Recent Books

Cultural Amnesia by Clive James. A large, interesting book. Slate posted a selection of the book's essays here.

The Bin Ladens by Steve Coll. In many ways, this book repeats the mantra that "those who fail to understand history are condemned to repeat it". Quite a work and a nice complement to his Ghost Wars.

Comrade J by Pete Earley (fascinating read):

In 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed, the Cold War officially ended, and a new world order began. We thought everything had changed. But one thing never did: the spies. From 1995 until 2000, a man known as “Comrade J” directed all Russian spy action in New York and oversaw all covert operations against the U.S. and its allies. He recruited spies, planted Russian agents, penetrated U.N. and U.S. security, and manipulated events that influenced American policy, under the direct leadership of Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin. He was a legend, the man who guarded Russia’s secrets – secrets that he never revealed.....until now. Based on exclusive interviews with Russian spymaster and double agent, Sergei Tretyakov, Comrade J exposes how the “new” Russia continues to spy and undermine the U.S.

Posted by jez at 4:51 PM

April 13, 2008

Clues to the Disappearance of Antoine de Saint-Exupery

John Taglibue:

After the disappearance of Amelia Earhart, the demise of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry on a reconnaissance mission in World War II has long ranked as one of aviation’s great mysteries. Now, thanks to the tenacity and luck of a two amateur archaeologists, the final pieces of the puzzle seem to have been filled in.

The story that emerged about the disappearance of Saint-Exupéry, the French aviator, author and émigré from Vichy France, proved to contain several narratives, a complexity that would likely have pleased the author of several adventure books on flying and the charming tale “The Little Prince,” about a little interstellar traveler, which was also a profound statement of faith.

On July 31, 1944, Saint-Exupéry took off from the island of Corsica in a Lockheed Lightning P-38 reconnaissance plane, one of numerous French pilots who assisted the Allied war effort. Saint-Exupéry never returned, and over the years numerous theories arose: that he had been shot down, lost control of his plane, even that he committed suicide.

The first clue surfaced in September 1998, when fishermen off this Mediterranean port city dragged up a silver bracelet with their nets. It bore the names of Saint-Exupéry and his New York publisher. Further searches by divers turned up the badly damaged remains of his plane, though the body of the pilot was never found.

I've read (Le Petit Prince) "The Little Prince" to our children any number of times. Clusty Search: Antoine de Saint-Exupery.

Posted by jez at 3:11 AM

March 23, 2008

My Trust in My Lord

Anne Rice:

Look: I believe in Him. It’s that simple and that complex. I believe in Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, the God Man who came to earth, born as a tiny baby and then lived over thirty years in our midst. I believe in what we celebrate this week: the scandal of the cross and the miracle of the Resurrection. My belief is total. And I know that I cannot convince anyone of it by reason, anymore than an atheist can convince me, by reason, that there is no God.

A long life of historical study and biblical research led me to my belief, and when faith returned to me, the return was total. It transformed my existence completely; it changed the direction of the journey I was traveling through the world. Within a few years of my return to Christ, I dedicated my work to Him, vowing to write for Him and Him alone. My study of Scripture deepened; my study of New Testament scholarship became a daily commitment. My prayers and my meditation were centered on Christ.

And my writing for Him became a vocation that eclipsed my profession as a writer that had existed before.

Why did faith come back to me? I don’t claim to know the answer. But what I want to talk about right now is trust. Faith for me was intimately involved with love for God and trust in Him, and that trust in Him was as transformative as the love.

Clusty Search: Anne Rice.

Posted by jez at 12:00 AM

March 7, 2008

Agent Zigzag

Just finished this excellent book by Ben Macintyre. Joseph Kanon digs in:

It’s rare that a single war story inspires two books in the same season. But even by World War II standards, the exploits of Eddie Chapman, a professional Soho criminal turned double agent for the Germans and the British, are extraordinary. His is a spy drama in the classic manner, complete with secret codes, invisible ink and parachute drops, cyanide capsules, sexy blondes (named Dagmar, no less) and a dashing hero. One of his girlfriends thought Eddie looked like Errol Flynn; certainly Flynn could have played him. He was an adventurer with a smile. Ben Macintyre says he could look you “straight in the eye” while he picked your pocket.

Chapman has surfaced before. In 1954 he published “The Eddie Chapman Story,” memoirs so eviscerated by the Official Secrets Act that his work for MI5 is not even mentioned (a gap that led some readers to conclude he had been only a German spy). A 1966 update, “The Real Eddie Chapman Story,” tells more, but guardedly. This book led, in turn, to a dim 1967 film, “Triple Cross.” And during the postwar years, readers of the London press could follow the wealthy “gentleman crook” through a series of escapades.

By the time of his death in 1997, however, Chapman’s notoriety had faded. Then, in 2001, MI5 declassified his file, with more than 1,700 pages of interrogation transcripts, internal memorandums and radio intercepts — a trove of detailed information, catnip to anyone interested in wartime espionage. To Ben Macintyre and Nicholas Booth, both seasoned London journalists, the chance to tell the full Eddie Chapman story at last proved irresistible. Here were all the makings of a popular book. Or, as it happened, two.

Posted by jez at 8:29 AM

January 6, 2008

Project Gutenberg: 3 million free ebooks

Great resource.

Posted by James Zellmer at 12:30 PM

December 26, 2007

Halberstam's Last: The Coldest Winter,

I just finished reading David Halberstam's last book: "The Coldest Winter". This work is a fascinating look at the key players in and around the Korean War. Well worth reading. Amazon Link. Powell's Review and the NY Times review.

Posted by James Zellmer at 11:14 AM

October 29, 2007


Microtrends via Amazon:

From Publishers Weekly
From "Soccer Moms," the legendary swing voters of the mid-1990s, to "Late-Breaking Gays" such as former Gov. Games McGreevey (out at age 47), Burson-Marsteller CEO (and campaign adviser to Sen. Hillary Clinton) Penn delves into the ever-splintering societal subsets with which Americans are increasingly identifying, and what they mean. For instance, because of "Extreme Commuters," people who travel more than 90 minutes each way to work, carmakers must come up with ever more luxury seat features, and "fast food restaurants are coming out with whole meals that fit in cup holders." In a chapter titled "Archery Moms?", Penn reports on the "Niching of Sports": much to the consternation of Major League Baseball, "we don't like sports less, we just like little sports more." The net result of all this "niching" is "greater individual satisfaction"; as Penn notes, "not one of the fastest-growing sports in America... depends substantially on teamwork." Penn draws similar lessons in areas of business, culture, technology, diet, politics and education (among other areas), reporting on 70 groups ("Impressionable Elites," "Caffeine Crazies," "Neglected Dads," "Unisexuals," "America's Home-Schooled") while remaining energetic and entertaining throughout. Culture buffs, retailers and especially businesspeople for whom "small is the new big" will value this exercise in nano-sociology.
WWW Site.

Posted by James Zellmer at 12:51 PM

October 28, 2007

Days on the Family Farm

Carrie Meyer:

A story both intimate and epic that paints a vivid picture of Midwestern farm life.

From the beginning of the twentieth century to World War II, farm wife May Lyford Davis kept a daily chronicle that today offers a window into a way of life that has all but disappeared. May and her husband Elmo lived through two decades of prosperity, the Great Depression, and two World Wars in their Midwestern farming community. Like many women of her time, Davis kept diaries that captured the everyday events of the family farm; she also kept meticulous farming accounts. In doing so, she left an extraordinary record that reflects not only her own experiences but also the history of early twentieth-century American agriculture.

Posted by James Zellmer at 10:04 AM

October 21, 2007

Tree of Smoke

Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson:

If this novel, Johnson's first in nearly a decade, is-as the promo copy says-about Skip Sands, it's also about his uncle, a legendary CIA operative; Kathy Jones, a widowed, saintly Canadian nurse; Trung, a North Vietnamese spy; and the Houston brothers, Bill and James, misguided GIs who haunt the story's periphery. And it's also about Sgt. Jimmy Storm, whose existence seems to be one long vision quest. As with all of Johnson's work-the stories in Jesus' Son, novels like Resuscitation of a Hanged Man and Fiskadoro-the real point is the possibility of grace in a world of total mystery and inexplicable suffering. In Johnson's honest world, no one story dominates. For all the story lines, the structure couldn't be simpler: each year, from 1963 (the book opens in the Philippines: "Last night at 3:00 a.m. President Kennedy had been killed") to 1970, gets its own part, followed by a coda set in 1983. Readers familiar with the Vietnam War will recognize its arc-the Tet offensive (65 harrowing pages here); the deaths of Martin Luther King and RFK; the fall of Saigon, swift and seemingly foreordained. Skip is a CIA recruit working under his uncle, Francis X. Sands, known as the Colonel. Skip is mostly in the dark, awaiting direction, living under an alias and falling in love with Kathy while the Colonel deals in double agents, Bushmills whiskey and folk history. He's a soldier-scholar pursuing theories of how to purify an information stream; he bloviates in gusts of sincerity and blasphemy, all of it charming. A large cast of characters, some colorful, some vaguely chalked, surround this triad, and if Tree of Smoke has a flaw, it is that some characters are virtually indistinguishable. Given the covert nature of much of the goings-on, perhaps it is necessary that characters become blurred. "We're on the cutting edge of reality itself," says Storm. "Right where it turns into a dream." Is this our last Vietnam novel? One has to wonder. What serious writer, after tuning in to Johnson's terrifying, dissonant opera, can return with a fresh ear? The work of many past chroniclers- Graham Greene, Tim O'Brien, the filmmakers Coppola, Cimino and Kubrick, all of whom have contributed to our cultural "understanding" of the war-is both evoked and consumed in the fiery heat of Johnson's story. In the novel's coda, Storm, a war cliché now way gone and deep in the Malaysian jungle near Thailand, attends preparations for a village's sacrificial bonfire (consisting of personal items smashed and axed by their owners) and offers himself as "compensation, baby." When the book ends, in a heartbreaking soliloquy from Kathy (fittingly, a Canadian) on the occasion of a war orphan benefit in a Minneapolis Radisson, you feel that America's Vietnam experience has been brought to a closure that's as good as we'll ever get. Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Posted by James Zellmer at 12:48 PM

October 4, 2007

A "Chat" with Garrison Keillor on his new book: Pontoon

Washington Post:

At the beginning of Keillor's hilarious new novel, Evelyn sets in motion a circus of zany events when she dies in her sleep -- despite the fact that she's an inveterate insomniac. In a no-nonsense note to her daughter Barbara, Evelyn stipulates that she wishes to be cremated, with her ashes sealed up in a bowling ball and "dropped into Lake Wobegon off Rocky Point." What's more, in the same letter Evelyn unapologetically reveals that for years she's been conducting a passionate love affair with a retired TV weatherman.
Amazon link to Pontoon.

Posted by James Zellmer at 8:56 AM

August 7, 2007

Q & A With William Gibson

Steve Ranger:

Science fiction novelist William Gibson has been exploring the relationship between technology and society ever since he burst on to the literary scene with his cyberpunk classic Neuromancer in 1984. He invented the word 'cyberspace' and his influential works predicted many of the changes technology has brought about. silicon.com's Steve Ranger caught up with him in the run up to the launch of his latest novel, Spook Country.

silicon.com: You've written much about the way people react to technology. What's your own attitude towards technology?
Gibson: I'm not an early adopter at all. I'm always quite behind the curve but I think that's actually necessary - by not taking that role as a consumer I can be a little more dispassionate about it.

Most societal change now is technologically driven, so there's no way to look at where the human universe is going without looking at the effect of emergent technology. There's not really anything else driving change in the world, I believe.

Posted by James Zellmer at 8:41 PM

June 22, 2007

Spy Wars: Moles, Mysteries, and Deadly Games

A New Book Spy Wars: Moles, Mysteries, and Deadly Games">by Tenant Bagley. A fascinating look at the Cold War battles between the CIA and KGB, among others. Bagley's perspective is largely one of "counter-intelligence". He includes some fascinating tales, including the Soviet's use of plants and "false borders". The book also provides an interesting look at Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin. Well worth reading.

Posted by James Zellmer at 4:30 PM

May 23, 2007

Da Nang Airport Bookstore Presidential Scene

Da Nang airport bookstore scene: Hilary Clinton's book above Ho Chi Minh, George Bush and Fidel Castro.

Posted by James Zellmer at 8:35 PM

April 30, 2007

Shattering the Bell Cure: The Power Law Rules

David Shaywitz:
Life isn't fair. Many of the most coveted spoils--wealth, fame, links on the Web--are concentrated among the few. If such a distribution doesn't sound like the familiar bell-shaped curve, you're right.

Along the hilly slopes of the bell curve, most values--the data points that track whatever is being measured--are clustered around the middle. The average value is also the most common value. The points along the far extremes of the curve contribute very little statistically. If 100 random people gather in a room and the world's tallest man walks in, the average height doesn't change much. But if Bill Gates walks in, the average net worth rises dramatically. Height follows the bell curve in its distribution. Wealth does not: It follows an asymmetric, L-shaped pattern known as a "power law," where most values are below average and a few far above. In the realm of the power law, rare and extreme events dominate the action.

For Nassim Taleb, irrepressible quant-jock and the author of "Fooled by Randomness" (2001), the contrast between the two distributions is not an amusing statistical exercise but something more profound: It highlights the fundamental difference between life as we imagine it and life as it really is. In "The Black Swan"--a kind of cri de coeur--Mr. Taleb struggles to free us from our misguided allegiance to the bell-curve mindset and awaken us to the dominance of the power law.
Posted by James Zellmer at 5:06 PM

March 3, 2007

Stewart on Afghan Policy

Rory Stewart:
The international community’s policy in Afghanistan is based on the claim that Afghans are willing partners in the creation of a liberal democratic state. Senator John McCain finished a recent speech on Afghanistan by saying, “Billions of people around the world now embrace the ideals of political, economic and social liberty, conceived in the West, as their own.”

In Afghanistan in January, Tony Blair thanked Afghans by saying “we’re all in this together” and placing them in “the group of people who want to live in peace and harmony with each other, whatever your race or your background or your religion.”

Such language is inaccurate, misleading and dangerous.

Afghans, like Americans, do not want to be abducted and tortured. They want a say in who governs them, and they want to feed their families. But reducing their needs to broad concepts like “human rights,” “democracy” and “development” is unhelpful.
Stewart wrote the excellent: "The Places in Between" on his walk across Afghanistan.
>For many Afghans, sharia law is central. Others welcome freedom from torture, but not free media or freedom of religion; majority rule, but not minority rights; full employment, but not free-market reforms. “Warlords” retain considerable power. Millions believe that alcohol should be forbidden and apostates killed, that women should be allowed in public only in burqas. Many Pusthu clearly prefer the Taliban to foreign troops.

Yet, senior officials with long experience with Afghanistan often deny this reality. They insist that Taliban fighters have next to no local support and are purely Pakistani agents. The U.N. argues that “warlords” have little power and that the tribal areas can rapidly be brought under central control. The British defense secretary predicted last summer that British troops in Helmand Province could return “without a bullet fired.” Afghan cabinet ministers insist that narcotics growth and corruption can be ended and the economy can wean itself off foreign aid in five years. None of this is true. And most of them half-know it.

It is not only politicians who misrepresent the facts. Nonprofit groups endorse the fashionable jargon of state-building and civil society, partly to win grants. Military officers are reluctant to admit their mission is impossible. Journalists were initially surprisingly optimistic about transforming Afghanistan. No one wants to seem to endorse a status quo dominated by the Taliban and drugs. Humankind cannot bear very much reality, particularly in Afghanistan.

Does it matter? Most people see our misrepresentations as an unappealing but necessary part of international politics. The problem is that we act on the basis of our own lies. British soldiers were killed because they were not prepared for the Helmand insurgency. In the same province, the coalition recommended a Western-friendly technocrat as governor; he was so isolated and threatened he could barely leave his office. Hundreds of millions of dollars invested in anticorruption efforts, and the police and the counternarcotics ministry, has been wasted on Afghans with no interest in our missions. Other programs are perceived as a threat to local culture and have bred anger and resentment.

Still others have raised expectations we cannot fulfill, betraying our friends. I experienced this in Iraq, where I encouraged two friends to start gender and civil society programs; we were unable to protect them, and both were killed. Even when we fail, instead of recognizing the errors of the initial assessment and the mission, we blame problems in implementation and repeat false and illogical claims in order to acquire more money and troops.

The time has come to be honest about the limits of our power and the Afghan reality. This is not to counsel despair. There is no fighting in the streets of Kabul, the Hazara in the center of the country are more secure and prosperous than at almost any time in their history, and the economy grew last year by 18 percent. These are major achievements. With luck and the right kind of international support, Afghanistan can become more humane, prosperous and stable.

But progress will be slow. Real change can come only from within, and we have less power in Afghanistan than we claim. We must speak truthfully about this situation. Our lies betray Afghans and ultimately ourselves. And the cost in lives, opportunities and reputation is unbearable.

Rory Stewart’s latest book is the “The Prince of the Marshes and Other Occupational Hazards of a Year in Iraq.” He runs the Turquoise Mountain Foundation in Kabul and is a guest columnist this month.
Posted by James Zellmer at 4:24 PM

December 12, 2006

Gibson on Writing a Book

William Gibson:
I think it may actually get worse, each time! But I also suspect that that may be a paradoxical indicator of relative emotional health. If you've ever met anyone who's writing a book that he or she is convinced is *very* good indeed, you'll know what I mean. (Swift reading to his servants may be the perfect case in point.)

By the time I'm three-quarters through the writing of a novel, I've necessarily lost anything like perspective, and must rely on feedback from trusted daily readers to know whether or not I've completely driven the thing off the road. I suspect that the biggest part of the labor of writing, for me, has always consisted of bludgeoning the editorial super-ego into relative passivity, though no matter how thoroughly I've managed to stun it, it still manages to send messages to the effect that the work is really deeply pathetic, hideously flawed, and should be abandoned immediately. I tend to imagine that this is what writer's block is really about, though in my case it's remained only partionally symptomatic. I manage to ignore those messages, as painful as I still find them.
Posted by James Zellmer at 9:44 AM

December 3, 2006

Books and the Future of Publishing

Michael Maiello and Michael Noer:
Are books in danger?

The conventional wisdom would say yes. After all, more and more media--the Internet, cable television, satellite radio, videogames--compete for our time. And the Web in particular, with its emphasis on textual snippets, skimming and collaborative creation, seems ill-suited to nurture the sustained, authoritative transmission of complex ideas that has been the historical purview of the printed page.

But surprise--the conventional wisdom is wrong. Our special report on books and the future of publishing is brim-full of reasons to be optimistic. People are reading more, not less. The Internet is fueling literacy. Giving books away online increases off-line readership. New forms of expression--wikis, networked books--are blossoming in a digital hothouse.
Posted by James Zellmer at 7:22 PM

December 1, 2006

Top 10 2006 Books via the NYT Book Review

NY Times:
Fiction & Non-Fiction. The list includes Rory Stewart's excellent: The Places in Between:
You are the first tourist in Afghanistan," Stewart, a young Scotsman, was warned by an Afghan official before commencing the journey recounted in this splendid book. "It is mid-winter - there are three meters of snow on the high passes, there are wolves, and this is a war. You will die, I can guarantee." Stewart, thankfully, did not die, and his report on his adventures - walking across Afghanistan in January of 2002, shortly after the fall of the Taliban - belongs with the masterpieces of the travel genre. Stewart may be foolhardy, but on the page he is a terrific companion: smart, compassionate and human. His book cracks open a fascinating, blasted world miles away from the newspaper headlines.
Posted by James Zellmer at 5:26 PM

November 5, 2006

Five Best Weather Books

Christopher Burt:
1. The Elements Rage by Frank W. Lane (Chilton, 1965).

What interests most people about weather (as opposed to climate--"Climate lasts all the time and weather only a few days," as Mark Twain put it) is its extremes and curious phenomena. Frank Lane clearly had that in mind in the early 1960s when he undertook writing "The Elements Rage." Even if the science here is out of date, the drama of the stories never grows old. The book offers dozens of extraordinary black-and-white photographs and a fact-packed text, rich in anecdotes on matters well beyond meteorology--earthquakes, tsunamis, avalanches, volcanoes. As an inspiration toward appreciating how strange the natural world can be, the book set a standard that others, including myself, have attempted to emulate.
Posted by James Zellmer at 9:56 AM

The Prince

Reviewed by David Ignatius:
When historians search for a paradigmatic figure who embodied America's old, pre-9/11 relationship with the Arab world, an obvious candidate will be Saudi Arabia's swaggering ambassador to Washington from 1983 to 2005, Prince Bandar bin Sultan. He was the Gatsby of foreign affairs: entertaining Washington's elite at his mansion overlooking the Potomac; exchanging secret favors with a string of presidents from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush; lobbying for Saudi weapons purchases so effectively that he trounced even AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby group; operating as a deniable arm of the CIA in covert operations around the world.
Posted by James Zellmer at 9:24 AM

October 22, 2006

Steadman's "The Joke's Over"

Christopher Hitchens:
Perhaps you can picture the work of Roald Dahl without the illustrations of Quentin Blake, or of Charles Dickens without the cartoons of Phiz. In a part of my mind, when reading Anthony Powell, I retain the images of the characters furnished by the imperishable Mark Boxer. Would we really have appreciated Alice in Wonderland without the drawings of Tenniel? However these questions may be decided, it is a certainty that the noir contribution of Ralph Steadman (who also produced a brilliantly illustrated Alice Through the Looking Glass) is as inseparable from the output of Hunter S Thompson as Marks from Spencer, or Engels from Marx.

This is not to say that the two men were exactly made for each other. Starting with their first joint assignment, which was to lampoon the Kentucky Derby for Scanlan’s magazine in 1970, Steadman was made to appreciate that he was yoked to a volatile and often dangerous manic-depressive. To describe the subsequent partnership as addictive would be disconcertingly accurate, although “disconcerting” would be the weakest way of expressing Steadman’s alarm at the properties of a small yellow pill that his friend so thoughtfully gave him on a later bad trip — if you will excuse the expression — to the America’s Cup in Rhode Island. The ensuing near-death experience is described without either rancour or self-pity, and, indeed, Steadman cannot claim not to have been warned.
Tattered Cover link.
Posted by James Zellmer at 1:51 PM

February 18, 2006

BMW Audio Books

Put on your seatbelt and prepare for highs, lows and plenty of twists and turns. BMW, in conjunction with Random House, brings you BMW Audio Books, a unique series of specially-commissioned short stories showcasing the work of some of the finest contemporary writing talent. Each gripping tale is yours to download for free and a new book will be available to download every two weeks. Listen to them on your MP3 player, your laptop or ideally, in the car. So sit back, hit play and enjoy the ride.
Posted by James Zellmer at 4:02 PM

February 6, 2006

The Gladwell Effect

Rachel Donadio:
"PEOPLE are experience rich and theory poor," the writer Malcolm Gladwell said recently. "People who are busy doing things — as opposed to people who are busy sitting around, like me, reading and having coffee in coffee shops — don't have opportunities to kind of collect and organize their experiences and make sense of them."
[mp3 audio]
Posted by James Zellmer at 10:58 AM

January 16, 2006

"The Origins of the Great War of 2007"

Niall Ferguson:
With every passing year after the turn of the century, the instability of the Gulf region grew. By the beginning of 2006, nearly all the combustible ingredients for a conflict - far bigger in its scale and scope than the wars of 1991 or 2003 - were in place.

The first underlying cause of the war was the increase in the region's relative importance as a source of petroleum. On the one hand, the rest of the world's oil reserves were being rapidly exhausted. On the other, the breakneck growth of the Asian economies had caused a huge surge in global demand for energy. It is hard to believe today, but for most of the 1990s the price of oil had averaged less than $20 a barrel.
Sort of a bolt of lightning as I've been reading Shirer's the Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. I'm now entering 1939 in this amazing 1960 work. The look back with respect to opportunities missed is simply astonishing. I hope Ferguson is dead wrong, but one can see the seeds of war...
Posted by James Zellmer at 11:30 AM

Constant Innovation

Geoffrey A. Moore:
The book's central question is: How can companies innovate continuously? He writes: "Evolution requires us to continually refresh our competitive advantage, sometimes in dribs and drabs, sometimes in major cataclysms, but always with some part of our business portfolio at risk and in play. To innovate forever, in other words, is not an aspiration; it is a design specification. It is not a strategy; it is a requirement."
Dealing with Darwin: How Great Companies Innovate at Every Phase of Their Evolution Author Geoffrey A. Moore
Posted by James Zellmer at 11:25 AM

December 29, 2005

Bogle's "The Battle for the Soul of Capitalism"

Vanguard Founder and former CEO John Bogle has written a timely and useful book: The Battle for the Soul of Capitalism. Daniel Berninger posts a nice summary:
"The Battle for the Soul of Capitalism" argues most of the forces that produced the scandals among Enron, Worldcom, et al remain in place.

This means investors should expect another wave of scandals even as the bad actors of the first wave go to trial.

The people running investment funds and corporations increasingly put their short term interests ahead of the long term interests of the investing public. The status quo has corporate CEO's reaping a disproportionate share of returns by finding ways to align the interests of the intermediaries with their own. The link between executive compensation and stock options produces more activities that boost short term stock price even as they jeopardize long term prospects. Bogle makes the point "the more the managers take, the less investors make." By his calculations, investing owners take 100% of the risk while CEO's, intermediary investment bankers, and portfolio managers get 70% of the compounded return. The currently passive nature of stock ownership follows the decline of direct ownership of stocks from 92% in 1950 to 32% today. Portfolio managers do not hold corporate CEO's accountable because the average stock stays in a portfolio for less than a year versus 15 years when Bogle got into the business in the 1960's.
Well worth reading.
Posted by James Zellmer at 10:49 AM

October 22, 2005

Getting Things Done

The Guardian:
All must be corralled in one place and then processed using Allen's core mantra of "Do it, delegate it, defer it". If the action takes less than two minutes, do it there and then. If longer, you either hand off to someone else or defer it into your pending tray. Otherwise it is trashed or filed. The in-tray thereby becomes sacrosanct. You never put stuff back into "In". Never.

On the web, for example, Getting Things Done (GTD) has gone supernova. Web and IT professionals have taken Allen's core ideas and refined them into ever more effective tips called "life hacks". Adherents swap these across a broad network of blogs, wikis and websites such as 43Folders.com - all amid a considerable amount of one-upmanship over who has the biggest and best system.
Getting Things Done by David Allen
Posted by James Zellmer at 9:42 AM

October 8, 2005

Bogle's New Book: The Battle for the Soul of Capitalism

The Motley Fool:

Time magazine called him one of the world's 100 most powerful and influential people. Now John Bogle weighs in on the current direction of America with his new book, The Battle for The Soul of Capitalism.

Bogle, who founded the Vanguard Group of mutual funds in 1974, was the company's chairman until 2000. Vanguard, one of the largest fund groups in the world, holds accounts totaling more than $800 billion.

Posted by James Zellmer at 12:01 AM

September 20, 2005

Shadid's Night Draws Near on Fresh Air

NPR's Fresh Air:

Anthony Shadid's new book is Night Draws Near: Iraq's People in the Shadow of America's War. Shadid is the Baghdad correspondent for The Washington Post. The book culls stories from Shadid's many visits to Iraq over the past eight years.

Posted by James Zellmer at 3:46 PM

September 11, 2005

Taleb's Fooled by Randomness Page

Nassim Taleb publishes a useful website that includes a number of useful articles following up on his wonderful book, Fooled by Randomness. His latest is: The Scandal of Prediction (PDF):

"My major hobby is teasing people who take themselves & the quality of their knowledge too seriously & those who don’t have the guts to sometimes say: I don’t know...." (You may not be able to change the world but can at least get some entertainment & make a living out of the epistemic arrogance of the human race).

Posted by James Zellmer at 5:58 PM

September 1, 2005

Shadid: Night Draws Near: Iraq's People in the Shadow of America's War

The Economist reviews UW Madison grad and Pulitzer Prize winner Anthony Shadid's ("who speaks Arabic like a native and writes English like an angel") new book: Night Draws Near: Iraq's People in the Shadow of America's War

Much more than these bold facts, however, the average western newspaper reader will not know. It is not easy to understand fully what is going on; still less so to make any accurate predictions about how it will end. Targeted by head-chopping Muslim fanatics, most foreign journalists do not leave the generous, if inevitably jaundiced, embrace of American and British troops. And even those who do must rely heavily on official sources—mostly Americans who are out of touch with the complex and changing world outside their fortress compounds, and who, like their government, have tended also to invent good news where there is none.

Thank goodness, then, for those reporters, both western and Iraqi, who are prepared to take risks in search of a more nuanced reality, among them Anthony Shadid, a correspondent for the Washington Post, whose words begin this article. Mr Shadid, an American of Lebanese descent, who speaks Arabic like a native and writes English like an angel, has put his best reporting into this book. Even-handed and keenly observed, containing just enough (and no more) of the author to suggest a decent man worthy of our trust, it is written for the inexpert but has fresh material for scholars. Mr Shadid calls his work story-telling rather than serious criticism, and so it is. But stories this insightful—of dead Iraqi insurgents and their motivations; of a 14-year-old Iraqi Anne Frank, with extracts from her wartime diary—are more than journalism; they are valuable chronicles.

More on Shadid.

Posted by James Zellmer at 11:06 AM

July 20, 2005

Best Insurgency Books

T.X. Hammes:

The heaviest responsibility a commander will know is taking his soldiers to war. How can he arm their minds as well as their bodies? A former U.S. Marine Corps colonel and expert on insurgencies culls the best books from various military reading lists.

Thousands of years ago, the Chinese sage Sun Tzu wrote down one of the first known lessons on war, The Art of War. Somewhat more recently, Maj. Gen. James Mattis wrote in the Feb. 2004 Marine Corps Gazette, "We have been fighting on this planet for 5,000 years, and we should take advantage of the experience of those who have gone before us. . . . Those who must adapt to overcoming an independent enemy's will are not allowed the luxury of ignorance of their profession." The study of books is one antidote to that ignorance. What books are military leaders recommending that U.S. soldiers read to gird themselves for today's struggle in Iraq?

To answer that question, I looked at a wide variety of reading lists -- from that of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff all the way to online lists compiled by men and women in command. A pattern emerged: the more senior the staff or service school, the less relevant the lists. These institutions continue to focus on conventional war. In contrast, the lists produced by those facing or returning from deployment to Iraq are directly applicable. They recognize that Sun Tzu's ancient caution to "know your enemy and know yourself" is no longer enough. In an insurgency, one must understand the population and culture as a whole. Thus the best lists emphasize three broad areas for preparing to serve in Iraq: insurgency, Iraqi history and culture, and Islam. What follows is a list of the most highly recommended books in these three categories.

Clearly, counterinsurgency warfare is an old problem, as reflected by the age of some of the best books here.

Small Wars Manual , U.S. Marine Corps, 1940. A practitioner's guide, this book made almost every list. It highlights lessons identified by Marines in the "Small Wars" of the early 20th century. From the political/strategic level to tactical operations, it provides shrewd guidance for those pitted against insurgents. Despite the section on packing mules, it remains painfully relevant today.

Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice , by David Galula, 1964. Although now 40 years old, this remains one of the most useful books on counterinsurgency ever written. A practitioner rather than an academic -- he observed wars in Greece, China and Algeria -- Galula starts with the understanding that insurgency and counterinsurgency are distinctly different types of wars and then explores how a counterinsurgent can succeed. (See excerpts on page 8.)

Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph , by T.E. Lawrence, 1926. The Marine Corps's Small Wars Center of Excellence praises this autobiographical account of Lawrence of Arabia's attempts to organize Arab nationalism during World War I. It lauds its "penetrating insights into Arab culture and politics, with implications for future developments in the 'Thrice-Promised Land.' " Although dated, Lawrence of Arabia's elegant masterpiece was the second most recommended book on the "Inside the Pentagon" reading list compiled from a survey of active-duty officers.

Another of Lawrence's works, the bluntly practical Twenty Seven Articles (1917), is also frequently quoted. In particular, practitioners have come to value his caution, earned out of painful experience spurring Arab troops to fight the Ottoman Empire. "Do not try to do too much with your own hands," Lawrence warned. "Better the Arabs do it tolerably than that you do it perfectly. It is their war, and you are to help them, not to win it for them." Twenty Seven Articles is widely recommended as a kind of Cliff's Notes for conveying some of the insights of Seven Pillars .

Insurgency and Terrorism: From Revolution to Apocalypse , by Bard E. O'Neill, second edition 2005. Col. H.R. McMaster of the 3d Armored Cavalry, currently serving in Iraq, noted that "O'Neill provides a framework for analyzing insurgency operations . . . a good book to read first in insurgency studies."

Counterinsurgency Lessons From Malaya and Vietnam: Learning to Eat Soup With a Knife , by John A. Nagl, 2002. Another recommendation from McMaster, who wants his soldiers to learn as they fight. In so doing, they would be following an old example. "Nagl argues," McMaster told his troops, "that Britain's military had an organization that allowed it to learn from its mistakes and eventually defeat the communist guerrillas in Malaya."

Insurgencies have everything to do with governance, and good governance requires an understanding of local conditions and cultures. Grasping the historical complexities of Iraq is the challenge these books address.

The Modern History of Iraq , by Phebe Marr, revised edition 2004. McMaster notes that this book, by a leading Iraq scholar, "focuses on several important themes: the search for national identity in a multi-ethnic, multi-religious state; the struggle to achieve economic development and modernity in a traditional society; and the political dynamics that have led to the current dire situation in Iraq."

The Reckoning: Iraq and the Legacy of Saddam Hussein , by Sandra Mackey, 2002. The U.S. Army Command and Staff College considers this book an important "account of the forces that produced Saddam's dictatorship." The book addresses the absence of an Iraqi sense of national identity and common purpose, and it considers the Baathist rule of terror and the destruction of the country's middle class.

The Kurds in Iraq: The Past, Present and Future , by Kerim Yildiz, 2004. An up-to-date account that explores what the Kurds want, both inside Iraq and in the context of the broader international community. Recent reports from Kirkuk and Mosul indicate the Kurds are not as compliant as the United States had hoped.

The Arab Mind , by Raphael Patai, 1973. Often derided in academia, this book made several lists but was both praised ("a good introduction to Arab culture and psychology") and pilloried ("the author portrays the Arabs too stereotypically"). The same controversy is present in reviews online.

The Shi'is of Iraq , by Yitzhak Nakash, second edition, 2003. This is a comprehensive history of the country's Shiite majority and its troubled relationship with the Sunni minority, which dominated the country under the Baath and now drives the insurgency. U.S. commanders remain concerned that the Shiites may respond in kind to continuing Sunni violence, tilting the country toward civil war.

Understanding Islam remains one of the key concerns for military leaders.

Islam: A Short History , by Karen Armstrong, 2000. Retired Gen. Anthony Zinni, who commanded American troops in the Middle East, once argued that "a fundamental rule of counterinsurgency is to make no new enemies." Ignorance of the religious and cultural beliefs of a society makes such mistakes inevitable -- and dangerous. Armstrong's book is a strong antidote to ignorance.

The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror , by Bernard Lewis, 2003. Controversial in its conclusions, Lewis's book explores Middle East history and tensions between Islam and the West. Lewis, an emeritus Princeton historian widely respected in conservative circles, places a particular emphasis on Islamist extremism and its implications for the United States.

Those who compile these lists hope that the books they endorse will give our troops in Iraq the mental strength to defeat an extraordinarily complex urban insurgency. Unfortunately, it is a rare commander who allots training time for reading; soldiers from privates to generals are supposed to do that on their own time. But it may be some of the most valuable training they get. The Pentagon would do well to come up with an expert and germane reading list of its own. ·

T.X. Hammes, a retired U.S. Marine Corps colonel, served as an infantry officer. He is the author of "The Sling and the Stone: On War in the 21st Century," a study of the evolution of modern insurgency.

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Posted by James Zellmer at 12:00 AM

July 12, 2005

Tufte in Madison

Presenting Data and Information: A One-Day Course Taught by Edward Tufte is in Madison August 8, 2005 ($320/person):I attended his course in Chicago last year. Highly recommended. More on Edward Tufte.
Posted by James Zellmer at 10:02 AM

June 5, 2005

Book: Not a Good Day to Die

I just finished Sean Naylor's excellent "Not a Good Day to Die". Major Donald E. Vandergriff reviews the book here.

As Sean so vividly describes, at dawn on March 2, 2002, America's first major battle of the 21st century began. Soldiers of the 101st Airborne and 10th Mountain Divisions flew into Afghanistan's Shahikot valley and into heavy enemy defenses. They were about to pay a bloody price for high level strategic miscalculations that underestimated the enemy's strength and willingness to fight. Sean’s book highlights that despite a mountain of historical evidence that is now available in the 21st Century via the Internet, our nation continues to make strategic and operational mistakes that, fortunately, an enemy has not yet been able to totally exploit.
A must read for those interested in our Foreign Affairs. Lind's "Of Cabbages & Kings" provides some useful perspective as well. Meanwhile, the war continues in Afghanistan.

Posted by James Zellmer at 12:00 AM

May 11, 2005

Charles McCarry Chat

Ex CIA agent and author Charles McCarry posted an online chat recently.

Posted by James Zellmer at 12:00 AM

April 28, 2005

More on Desert One: The Crisis

Jim Greer sent along a followup to my link to David Hackworth's comments on Desert One. Greer suggests reading "The Crisis" - views of the rise of militant islam in Iran from the Carter Administration.

Posted by James Zellmer at 12:00 AM

April 25, 2005

Not a Good Day to Die

Major Donald E. Vandergriff, US Army:

Sean Naylor has just published one of the best battle narratives ever written, but more than that, he has written a powerful story of the people behind the decisions and of those charged with their execution. The book is Not a Good Day to Die: The Untold Story of Operation Anaconda (Berkley Books, March 2005), and it is now reaching the larger bookstores.

Posted by James Zellmer at 12:00 AM

March 11, 2005

Malcolm Gladwell at the UW on Blink

New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point and more recently, Blink, spoke a the UW Wednesday evening. Here's an excerpt of his talk [Quicktime video | mp3] This was an interesting evening.

Posted by James Zellmer at 12:01 AM

February 1, 2005

K-12 Sports: Friday Night Lights

I just finished reading Bissinger's Friday Night Lights.

The bestselling story of life in the football-driven town of Odessa, Texas, explores how the town's passion for the team inspires--and sometimes shatters--the young men who wear the Panther uniform.
Having lived in Texas some years ago, Bissinger presents a very accurate picture of Texas High School Football. Read David Bernhardt's thoughts on K-12 sports for another perspective.

Posted by James Zellmer at 12:00 AM

November 7, 2004

Frank Lloyd Wright Book

James F. O'Gorman reviews Ada Louise Huxtable's new Wright book.

Posted by James Zellmer at 12:00 AM

September 6, 2004

Freedom Just Around the Corner

Walter A. McDougal's Freedom Just Around the Corner is a fascinating look at the genesis of the American Condition. Very worthwhile read, particularily during this election season.

Posted by James Zellmer at 12:02 AM

July 5, 2004

The Old Iron Road

David Haward Bain's latest: The Old Iron Road is an enjoyable book that describes his family's vacation tracing the route of the first transcontinental railroad.

Posted by James Zellmer at 10:06 PM

June 11, 2004

British Gardening

The June 5, 2004 Economist reviews "A Little History of British Gardening":

NAPOLEON called England a nation of shopkeepers: given the demise of the British high street, it would be more appropriate today to call it a nation of gardeners. The bicentenary of the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) this year has spawned a green-fingered fever across a country where gardening is already a national pastime; where more than 15% of the population has a conservatory; where television gardeners are national heart-throbs; and where almost everyone has an opinion on rhododendrons

Posted by James Zellmer at 8:34 AM

April 8, 2004

Learning to Expect the Unexpected

Former Wall Street bond trader and author of the quite useful book Fooled by Randomness pens an op-ed piece in today's New York Times where he describes black swans (an outlier, an event that lies beyond the realm of normal expectations) with respect to 9/11 and the current investigation:

Most people expect all swans to be white because that's what their experience tells them; a black swan is by definition a surprise. Nevertheless, people tend to concoct explanations for them after the fact, which makes them appear more predictable, and less random, than they are. Our minds are designed to retain, for efficient storage, past information that fits into a compressed narrative. This distortion, called the hindsight bias, prevents us from adequately learning from the past.

Black swans can have extreme effects: just a few explain almost everything, from the success of some ideas and religions to events in our personal lives. Moreover, their influence seems to have grown in the 20th century, while ordinary events � the ones we study and discuss and learn about in history or from the news � are becoming increasingly inconsequential.

Consider: How would an understanding of the world on June 27, 1914, have helped anyone guess what was to happen next? The rise of Hitler, the demise of the Soviet bloc, the spread of Islamic fundamentalism, the Internet bubble: not only were these events unpredictable, but anyone who correctly forecast any of them would have been deemed a lunatic (indeed, some were). This accusation of lunacy would have also applied to a correct prediction of the events of 9/11 � a black swan of the vicious variety.

Posted by James Zellmer at 8:38 AM

March 28, 2004

Fast Food Nation - an excellent book

Julie Leung . This book is a fascinating look at the origins & cultural implications of the fast food business.

Fast Food Nation dates to 2001, but is well worth reading today.

Posted by James Zellmer at 9:27 AM

March 26, 2004

9/11 Panel Background

I've been reading Steve Coll's Ghost Wars, The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001.

Anyone interested in a deep look at how we arrived at the current situation in Central Asia should read this book. Coll follows our policies from supporting the Afghans & jihad fighters against the Soviets in the 1980's to our complete withdrawal (the source of our problems, I believe) after the Soviets left (leaving Afghanistan to the Pakistanis/Saudis and others) through the 1990's where a few tried to get those at the top engaged once again in the region as the Taliban rose to power (backed by Bin Laden and others) and finally, to 09/10/2001.

There's been no shortage of discussion recently on this topic, including the recent charges/counter charges around Richard Clarke. Clarke's White House role during the 1990's is discussed extensively in this book. I believe Coll's work provides a useful basis to get through the politics and discover that in reality, there was little leadership or will power to address these problems, until 9/11 (despite the Cole bombing, the African bombings and other telltale signs of what was to come).

The genesis of the problem is that we abandoned Afghanistan after the Soviets left (leaving it wide open for regional players), and did not re-engage in a serious way until post 9/11.

Fascinating read.

he Washington Post In Ghost Wars, The Washington Post's managing editor, Steve Coll, takes a long -- and long overdue -- look at the peaks and valleys of the CIA's presence in Afghanistan throughout the decades leading to Sept. 10, 2001. It is a well-written, authoritative, high-altitude drama with a cast of few heroes, many villains, bags of cash and a tragic ending -- one that may not have been inevitable. � James Bamford
Posted by James Zellmer at 7:35 AM

February 16, 2004

William Gibson's Pattern Recognition

William J. Wineke writes:

William Gibson is credited with inventing the term "cyberspace" two decades ago and imagining a system he called the "Matrix" long before Al Gore "invented" the Internet. <

He forecast the development of the digital world in his book "Neuromancer," published in 1984, which won the Hugo, Nebula and Philip K. Dick awards for science-fiction writing. No fiction writer in the land is more associated in the public mind with the digital world than is Gibson. <

His latest book, just released in paperback, is "Pattern Recognition" (Berkley: $14). It tells of Cayce Pollard, a market researcher who spends her time trying to recognize cultural and social patterns corporations can turn into cash. She becomes intrigued with a series of anonymous Internet video clips that have become an underground sensation.

Pattern Recognition is an excellent book.

Posted by James Zellmer at 8:28 PM